Outer space, inner demons
[Photos: Twentieth Century Fox]
Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) has a mysterious reunion with his dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), while investigating strange occurrences at a space station.
By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 28, 2002
Solaris is a cerebral, hypnotic film in which director Steven Soderbergh again takes a standard form - this time science fiction - and strips away the expectations.
Steven Soderbergh's Solaris is an anti-science-fiction movie, no matter what it seems like on its space station surface. Costumes and common tools have a fairly futuristic look, but the fiction Soderbergh somberly defines is worlds apart from death-ray shoot 'em ups.
And, unlike science, no concrete answers will be revealed.
Questions are plentiful. What kind of force took control of the space station Prometheus, pushing its crew to insanity and death? Why and how? Who are the "visitors" who are personally familiar with the crew members but couldn't possibly be from Earth?
Most important, how will Soderbergh avoid turning Solaris into just another outer-space spook chase such as Event Horizon, especially with a hunk of bankable beefcake such as George Clooney wearing an astronaut suit?
Soderbergh's answer to that one won't satisfy some viewers. Solaris is more hypnotic than visceral, built upon emotions instead of special-effects mechanics. Once again, the filmmaker takes an established genre and strips away expectations, replacing them with challenging themes. Solaris is ponderous and existential, no less frustrating for short attention spans than 2001: A Space Odyssey or Soderbergh experiments such as Full Frontal. That will be its curse at the box office and a blessing for like-minded moviegoers.
Clooney barely unleashes his easy charisma playing Chris Kelvin, a psychologist requested to visit Prometheus and investigate strange occurrences. Why he is allowed to go alone and how he learned to fly a space shuttle are details Soderbergh skips to get Kelvin into the same fractured psyche as the crew. Kelvin makes the trip carrying emotional baggage that the mysterious force compels him to examine.
The only surviving crew members are badly shaken: Snow (Jeremy Davies) babbles in riddles and knows more than he can construct in complete sentences. Gordon (Viola Davis) is more composed but is frightened by whatever is happening. Both have visitors haunting them, as Kelvin soon will.
While sleeping, Kelvin dreams about meeting his future wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), and their first lovemaking. When he wakes up, Rheya is in bed beside him, which is doubly hard to believe because, as later dreams inform us, she's dead.
Determining how this could happen would be standard operating procedure under such supernatural circumstances. Solaris is concerned only with Kelvin's mental state sliding from skepticism to faith to madness. Clooney subdues his charm (except in courtship dreams), creating an emotionally distanced character still easy to support. He's in nearly every scene, carefully measuring Kelvin's decline. It's one of his best performances.
In Solaris, George Clooney is a psychologist who visits a space station to investigate mysterious goings-on.
McElhone (The Truman Show) makes a tough role look easy, making tiny distinctions between Rheya's evolving flashback character and her present-day curiosity about what is happening to her, or if she truly is Rheya resurrected. Soderbergh toys with several ideas: the persistence and reliability of memory, the finality (or not) of death, the effects of guilty grief and whether fate can be altered.
Soderbergh is obviously influenced by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey with his casual futurism, voyeur camera angles and slow tracking shots through Prometheus that, along with Cliff Martinez's ominous musical score, create a palpable sense of dread.
Solaris is a frequently impressive meditation on themes not commonly addressed in movies, in a format that has been beaten into the ground. Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 version of Stanislaw Lem's novel is an hour longer and reportedly even more oblique. It will be interesting to see how the Star Wars crowd responds to Solaris, because grand ideas, the core of science fiction, have been relegated to creature designs and hectic action in recent years. Solaris has neither, and that feels like so much more.
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