Steven Soderbergh takes a crack at melding his commercial sensibilities with his esoteric soul in "Solaris," an abstract, ultrastylish, philosophical science fiction film designed to leave you mulling over its meaning for hours, if not days, afterwards.
Adapted by the director from a book by Stanislaw Lem, the film is also a remake of a meditative, three-hour long 1972 Russian film of the same name, in which scientists on a distant space station start going mad when their private mental obsessions are turned corporeal by the apparently sentient planet they're orbiting.
The new film is a much briefer 99 minutes and stars George Clooney as Chris Kelvin, a shrink recovering (poorly) from his wife's death, who is desperately summoned by an old friend to an outpost space lab where the crew has mysteriously cut off all contact with Earth.
After a long solo journey, he arrives to find the station adrift in orbit around Solaris -- a eerily beautiful planet covered in a sea of stormy blue and purple plasma that often arcs into the atmosphere in fluid filament ribbons. The first thing Kelvin finds after docking is a trail of blood, then his friend's frozen corpse and the only two crew members left alive -- both of whom are skirting the edge of sanity.
When he tries to get answers, he's met with riddles. Snow (Jeremy Davies), an erratic, wiry young techie with mantis-like body language evades questions with the whacked-out, mellow dementia of a hippie on an acid-trip. Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis), who refuses to leave her quarters, tells Kelvin, "Until it starts happening to you, there's really no point in discussing it."
Then "it" does start happening to him.
Kelvin wakes up from a dream of his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) to find her in the flesh, in his arms, onboard this station light years from the Earth where she is buried. When his mind can't cope, he jettisons the doppelganger into space, only to have her reappear the next night after more fond memory dreams and nightmares of finding her body.
But is this his wife? Is she Kelvin's chance to undo the tragedy of her death? Or is this woman something all together different? An alien manifestation? Supernatural resurrection? "I'm not the person I remember," she says with true fear in her voice. "Or at least I don't think I am."
There is only one thing that's clear to Kelvin in his bedevil state of mind: The appearance of Rheya and other such "visitors" spawned by the minds of the station's crew are somehow linked to the planet below. It reacts to the station as if it were observing the people onboard, just as they were observing it.
Conceptual and otherworldly (both literally and figuratively) to a vivid, palpable degree, "Solaris" is a movie of manifold cerebral and emotional context that cannot be easily summarized in print. It's more of an intense metaphysical experience than a story, as Soderbergh probes Kelvin's increasingly frequent, sometimes warm, sometimes harrowing flashbacks that begin to blend with his reality.
Clooney continues to prove his surprising range in this picture. He shares enticing, intellectual flirtations with McElhone in the film's gold-tinted historical episodes, while showing bona fide devastation as his life is upended by her death, and he exhibits a strained, torn and tormented perseverance in the metalic and blue-hued present onboard the now out-of-control station. McElhone ("fear dot com," "The Truman Show") has the harder role, playing both the warmly flirtatious but emotionally unsound Rheya in Kelvin's memories, and the apprehensive blank-slate double haunted by the knowledge that she has Rheya's soul only in so much as it existed in Kelvin mind.
There's an uncanny stillness to the emotional echoes that sound throughout "Solaris," and Soderbergh was clearly inspired by Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (as was the 1972 Russian original) in ambiance, visual technique and philosophy. But while the writer-director dips his toe in larger themes like the very existence of God, he does not dive into the deep end for a long swim the way Kubrick did.
There's no question that Soderbergh -- whose talent begets everything from superior Hollywood fare ("Erin Brockovich," "Ocean's Eleven") to idiosyncratic art films ("The Limey," "Schitzopolis") to misunderstood, inside-joke pet projects ("Full Frontal") -- had all the freedom he wanted for this film. But while it's intellectually spellbinding enough to leave one ruminating its meaning and its ambiguous ending, "Solaris" isn't as mind-blowing as it could have and should have been.
As McElhone says in the film while trying to convince Clooney to return to Earth and leave her on the station as its orbit decays, "There are no answers. Only choices." I choose to praise "Solaris" for its ability to tap both soul and cerebral cortex, even if it falls short of leaving a lasting mark on either.