USA 2002 : Steven SODERBERGH : 99 mins

Just when it seemed – after The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven – that Soderbergh would never again match the form he showed in Out of Sight, he unexpectedly regains his stride with, of all things, a Tarkovsky remake. Strictly speaking, Soderbergh’s script is based on the Stanislaw Lem’s original novel rather than the 1972 adaptation – a 165-minute Soviet-era epic (already loose inspiration for both Sphere and Event Horizon) which featured many dazzling peaks of cinematic genius scattered amid long expanses of grinding tedium. This new film is a much more even affair, sustaining its intriguingly enigmatic tone over a relatively brisk 99 minutes: the boredom factor has been much reduced; but, as Soderbergh is clearly no Tarkovsky, his Solaris operates within much narrower creative limitations.

George Clooney (looking very much like a younger, trimmer version of Tarkovsky’s grizzled lead Donatas Banionis) is Chris Kelvin, a psychologist still struggling with feelings of grief and guilt over the suicide of his partner Rheya (Natasha McElhone), three years before. He’s approached by a high-tech multinational corporation with interests in outer space: their space-station Prometheus, circling the gaseous planet of Solaris, has run into unspecified trouble. Kelvin’s old friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) has sent a cryptic video-message SOS, which Kelvin agrees to answer. Travelling to the Solaris orbit, he finds Gibarian and the rest of his crew dead, with the exception of scientists Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davis). It seems that the planet is somehow capable of interacting with their thought processes and then providing them with ‘visitors’ based on their memories in the form of exact simulacra of human beings from their past. It isn’t long before Chris receives disturbing visitations of his own.

“There are no answers here – only choices,” Kelvin is solemnly informed by a ‘visitor’ at one point: a statement that allows Soderbergh infinite license to craft a deliberately enigmatic, fragmentary movie which pays little heed to the standard Hollywood storytelling requirements. As usual working as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym ‘Peter Andrews’) in addition to his writing and directing duties, Soderbergh’s creative control over his material enables him to experiment with narrative in a manner only slightly less audacious and ambitious than micro-budget jeux d’esprit like Schizopolis and the more recent Full Frontal. This approach has led many observers to see Solaris as “incomprehensible” and “obscure.” The accepted view is that this is a cold, cerebral, impenetrable work which perhaps not even Soderbergh nor Clooney fully understand. Admittedly, the film does have a cool, metallic look – limpid images full of muddy greys, greens and blues, a vision of the near future that’s not a million miles away from Minority Report.

And many sombre, sequences do take their cue from Kelvin’s permanently grief-numbed state of mind. But this only goes to emphasise the genuine emotional fire which burns strongly at the film’s centre – appropriately enough for a narrative about the power of memory, Soderbergh includes many fragmentary flashbacks to the passionate early stages of Kelvin and Rheya’s relationship. The soundtrack at these moments is often composed entirely of Cliff Martinez’s phenomenal, quietly elegant, electronica-tinged score, including a lovemaking recollection that (like a parallel scene between Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight) makes explicit reference to the legendary, audaciously-edited lovemaking in Don’t Look Now. And Solaris stands comparison with that classic sequence surprisingly well, thanks to the technical expertise of Soderbergh and his collaborators, plus the talents and strikingly photogenic looks of his main actors.

It’s this genuinely romantic, elegaic mood-making that gives Solaris a heart and soul to go with its brain – and the film is much more coherent in the latter area than its detractors give it credit for. Solaris is explicitly a film about a rational man who, exposed to an extraordinary force (the planet could be a deity, a vast extra-terrestrial intelligence, or something else altogether), undergoes a fundamental change of character. “Are we alive or dead?” he asks ‘Rheya’ at the end. “We don’t have to think like that any more,” comes the calm response – and it seems that Kelvin is willing to take a leap of faith into the unknown, confident he will be buoyed upward and onward by love.

In a way, this is only an adult variant on the saccharine wish-fulfilment coda in Spielberg’s A.I. – except here the denouement feels more satisfyingly ambiguous, and more consistent with what’s gone before: psychologically valid and philosophically challenging. As the visitor ‘Rheya’ painfully comes to terms with her own falseness, we recall how Michael Haneke’s Funny Games – the most startling investigation of the ‘fictionality’ of movie characters – ends with a discussion of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, specifically the dawning ‘self-awareness’ of its anti-matter Rheya figure. We’re again confronted with multiple levels of reality – just as Solaris ‘projects’ the visitors into the spaceship, we’re watching characters being projected onto our cinema screen: the actress McElhone as the simulacrum Rheya, realising she’s a construct created from Chris’s memories, which we also see on our screens as he relives them in dreams. Soderbergh’s Solaris glides us elegantly between these overlapping spheres – inviting us, like Kelvin at the end, to surrender our doubts and succumb to (apparently) benign illusion.

14th March, 2003
(seen UGC Boldon, 13th March 2003)

click here for the shorter version of this review

by Neil Young