Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), a psychologist, is in mourning for his wife Rheya, who killed herself some years before. An old friend, Gilbarian (Ulrich Tukur), asks Chris if he can help out with some problems on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Chris arrives to find Gilbarian dead and only two crewmembers remaining: Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davis). It seems that Solaris has the ability to conjure flesh-and-blood human analogues from the crew’s memories. That night, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) visits him in his room…
Solaris is the second adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel, following Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet-made 1972 version. (I haven’t read the novel as I write this, but I have seen the earlier film, which is available on DVD and reviewed by Michael Brooke here.) Soderbergh’s film positions itself as a fresh version of the novel rather than a remake of the Tarkovsky film. In a sense, this remake is an opportunity to tell the same story using a different visual language: the High Arthouse of Tarkovsky’s film, achieving its effects from philosophical discussions, long takes and the slow build-up of intricate visual detail, versus something closer to mainstream Hollywood. In fact as Soderbergh has said in interviews, his approach to Solaris is closer to the arthouse than you might expect with a major-studio SF film on a $50 million budget with a big-name star actor. (Actually that’s a medium budget by today’s Hollywood standards.) The pace is more measured than you might expect, though Soderbergh brings the film in at just over half the running time of the 1972 version. Attention needs to be paid, and the film raises some questions (approaching the sophistication of written SF) about identity. How much does our identity depend on our memories – and if we are a creation of someone else’s memories, what consequences does that have for our sense of our own selves?
The previous film that Solaris most resembles is, oddly, The Limey, with which it shares the themes of memory and personal loss. Soderbergh also uses an intricate structure involving flashbacks – and possibly flashforwards, which fall into place towards the end. He also uses the technique of mismatching sound and image that he used in the old film, and the slight handheld camera shake during moments of intimacy between Kelvin and his wife that recalls scenes between Julia Roberts and Aaron Eckhart in Erin Brockovich. Soderbergh (who also photographed and edited the film under pseudonyms) colour codes the action: bluish tones for the space station, orange/gold for “home”. It’s a very “interior” film: there are some very good exterior shots of the space station, but most of the film takes place inside. Tarkovsky’s film emphasised the relationship between Kelvin and his father: Soderbergh abandons that theme altogether and foregrounds the story of husband and wife. And that is where Solaris, the planet, and Solaris, the film, leaves us at the end – or maybe not, as the ending could be read more than one way.
Where the film is flawed is in its acting. It’s commendable for Clooney to expand his range beyond the light comedy he’s best at, but this role shows his limitations. He’s a presence rather than an actor, and he’s at his best when directors use him as such: and I’m not certain how much a more “emotional” actor might have benefited the film. (And yes, he does take his clothes off.) Natascha McElhone is effective in a role that is very much all “presence” as well. In the rest of the small principal cast, Jeremy Davies gives an eccentric performance (reminding me of Steve Zahn more than anything) that certainly won’t be to all tastes, while Viola Davis is rather blank in a thankless role.
How well Solaris stands up to repeated viewing I’ve yet to find out. But on one showing, it demonstrates once again Soderbergh’s versatility (in Hollywood, only Ang Lee rivals him in this respect) and ability to take popular genres and give them a fresh, intelligent spin. Solaris is a major-studio SF film that doesn’t insult its viewers’ IQ, and for that alone it’s worth seeing.