Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:39 - Released 11/27/02

Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh has covered a multitude of subjects in his career so far, from sex, lies and videotape to one woman’s fight against a large corporation to the Pan-American drug trade to the ins and outs of pulling off a major casino heist. But this is the first time he’s left the planet. Solaris is a re-working (it can’t exactly be called a “remake”) of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Russian sci-fi film Solyaris, which itself was based on the 1961 book by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, and was supposed to be Tarkovsky’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. While Soderbergh has adapted Lem’s text himself, reportedly altering the story’s focus somewhat, he is said to have remained more faithful to the book than the Russian director, whose masterful but famously slow 3-hour adaptation was apparently hated by the author. It’s still too early to tell whether Lem will like this version, but it’s certainly representative of Soderbergh’s style, his restless camera swooping continuously through scenes, characters, settings, and focal lengths with a minimum of cuts, but it’s also clearly influenced by Kubrick. With its cold silences, facial close-ups, and eerily beautiful musical choices, no one who has seen 2001 could deny the similarities in style and tone. Starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone, it tells the story of a psychologist who travels to a distant planet to investigate the curious behavior of a space station’s crew, only to become involved in his own struggle with reality.

Although no indication is given of date, one can only presume that this story takes place some time in the future, since most of the action occurs on a space station orbiting a planet outside the Solar System. This planet, a tranquil-looking mass of blue, green, and purple oceans undulating with what look like electro-magnetic waves or storms, is called Solaris, and although it seems quiet and peaceful, it harbors an unfathomable secret from the occupants of the spindle-shaped station hovering above its tumultuous surface. When Dr. Chris Kelvin (Clooney) arrives, he learns that mission commander Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) has committed suicide, and the remaining crew members, Dr. Helen Gordon (Viola Davis) and a technician named Snow (Jeremy Davies), are reticent to explain what’s been happening. But it’s not long before Chris gets his own demonstration when he is joined in his quarters by the living, breathing incarnation of his deceased wife Rheya (McElhone), who killed herself several years ago after an argument with him. At first unable to accept this new version of Rheya into his heart, Chris is swept away by memories of their affair and his regret over losing her. While he is trying to wrestle with this issue, it becomes clear that the station is drifting inexorably toward the planet, caught in its increasing gravitational grasp. They must get out of there soon—but what to do about Rheya?

In addition to the surface plot regarding Chris’s perplexing experience with Rheya, this film delves into much deeper questions, including the existence of God, the possibility and nature of extraterrestrial life, and how humans interact with each other in the face of events that change their lifelong beliefs. In other words, the same kind of things that are dealt with in 2001. It’s interesting to note that although Kubrick’s film was produced first, the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke was written in 1968, after Lem’s novel. (Clarke aficionados will argue that he wrote “The Sentinel,” the short story upon which 2001 was based, in 1948, but I daresay the philosophical issues were not addressed to the extent that they were in the novel and the film.) Whether Clarke was influenced by Lem, or Lem by Clarke, or Soderberg by Kubrick, this film is a thoughtful and troubling excavation into the depths of human nature. Clooney, who while filming this movie was reportedly also working overtime on his directorial debut film Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, looks hollow-eyed and exhausted, but is certainly able to reach the emotional extremes necessary for the part, something he has not had the opportunity to do in most of his other film roles. McElhone is elegant both as her human self (in flashback scenes) and the slightly different character of her Solaris-inspired replication.

Any fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey will want to give Soderbergh’s Solaris a look. It offers the same ponderous philosophy as that film, as well as the same brilliant visual effects, the same sterile atmosphere, and the same unanswered and unanswerable questions. But it may not be for sci-fi fans who crave Star Wars-like adventures or Alien-esque thrills. You have to be willing to think. ****½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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