Planet of the Dupes

Solaris soulful simulacra

After gliding from success to success, Steven Soderbergh has hit a tricky patch. His last film, Full Frontal, a low-budget palate-cleanser, was greeted with breathtaking vituperation by critics who somehow seemed to find it more pretentious than, say, Road to Perdition. His daring new project, Solaris, is a dead-serious, big-budget remake of the fabled 1972 art film by the late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. As such, it threatens to alienate both the mass audience that expects a normal George Clooney movie and cineastes loyal to the original: even before Soderbergh began shooting, a Tarkovsky fan chased him down the streets of Manhattan, yelling, "You should be ashamed of yourself!"

Really? A piece of metaphysical sci-fi, the original film was conceived as a response to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Tarkovsky found technically dazzling but inhuman. Giving its story the full Russian treatment (its deep-dish philosophical discussions come garnished with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky), Tarkovsky's portentous 165-minute yarn unfolded at about the same pleasurable pace as global warming. When I saw it back in college, I found it almost un-watchable and embraced David Thomson's verdict that an episode of Star Trek had explored the same themes "with more wit and ingenuity, less sentimentality, and at a third the length."

Clocking in at a lean 96 minutes, Soderbergh's Solaris is a pared-down sliver of storytelling and, like the original, almost incidentally a work of science fiction. Clooney stars as Chris Kelvin, a disillusioned shrink who has spent years grieving for his dead wife, Rheya, when he receives an enigmatic call for help from a scientist friend on a space station near Solaris, a swirling, oceanic planet that, the crew is discovering, is essentially a gigantic brain. Arriving at the station, he finds his pal dead and the place deserted, except for a jittery geek named Snow (Jeremy Davies), whose mind, mouth and hands play to different time signatures, and Gordon (Viola Davis), a stolid researcher who for some reason doesn't want to leave her cabin. A vast, pulsing consciousness, Solaris has the ability to bring human memories to life, and as Kelvin sleeps, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) shows up in his room. Freaked out, he activates a space pod and banishes the simulacrum into deep space. But Rheya keeps coming back (imagine a melancholy version of Groundhog Day), and though he knows she's merely a living, breathing emanation, the lovesick Kelvin starts sleeping with her, wondering whether he can save the new Rheya to atone for not saving his real wife back on Earth.

In telling this tautly elliptical story of love, memory, guilt and redemption, Soderbergh has deliberately avoided Tarkovsky's trademark slow pace and long takes. Kelvin's dreamlike reality is caught in the film's look, with its hallucinatory crispness, symbolic battle between golds and blues (ŗ la Traffic) and occasional use of tight focus to give background or foreground shapes an ambiguous fluidity. This is a movie about seeing, and Soderbergh pays careful attention to his characters' eyes—we watch them light up, change color and fall so deeply into shadow that they resemble black, hollow sockets. If his visual style here has a shortcoming, it's that his images have the burnished allure of a good Calvin Klein ad—arresting, but ultimately unmemorable. There's none of the transcendent imagery you find in, well, Tarkovsky.

As always, Soderbergh's terrific with actors. He wins a forceful turn from Viola Davis, who gives Gordon a ferocious sense of rationality. When she insists that the new Rheya isn't human, she knows exactly what she's saying (even if it makes her sound inhumane). Eventually, so does Rheya herself, who, like a fugitive from a Philip K. Dick novel, comes to realize that she's not a real woman but only a sentient figment of Kelvin's memories and desires. This weird identity crisis—am I real or just someone's dream come to life?—makes her Solaris' most poignant character and draws out McElhone's richest screen performance to date. In the actress' best scene, Kelvin keeps asking if she's all right, and Rheya keeps saying, "Yeah," her awareness of her tragic situation growing each time she says it.

* * *

Until now, George Clooney has always seemed a present-day version of Cary Grant or Clark Gable (both of whom he successfully knocked off in O Brother, Where Art Thou?)—an old-school movie star better known for virile charm than inner depth. He has taken a big chance with Kelvin, a role that forces him to an impressive new level of emotionalism: for a guy who has spent his career playing cool, he's strikingly good at acting scared, freaked-out, shattered. (Whether audiences want this from him is another question.) Caught in ever more tortured bafflement, he moves around the space station with an odd, clenched walk and a spooked expression of existential distress. Oddly enough, Clooney's at his worst in the gilded, rather trite flashbacks to Kelvin and Rheya's previous life together—precisely the scenes that come closest to asking him to "do Clooney." The same is true of Solaris as a whole, which is far more compelling in space than it is on terra firma. The flashbacks to planet Earth are far too explicit, cheating Kelvin and Rheya's relationship of its potential depth and mystery. (Julia Roberts and Albert Finney shared a far more resonant bond in Erin Brockovich.) And although the deft use of flashbacks is a Soderbergh touchstone, here the earthbound romance is so tinny that Clooney and McElhone had to win me back each time we returned to Solaris.

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