It has always been easier for filmmakers to put humans in space than NASA, and the cosmos have provided a dramatic backdrop for retooled westerns, war movies, pirate adventures and murder mysteries. What rarely gets explored in space is the very thing that makes it so compelling: it represents not only the unknown, but the unknowable. Filmmakers can be excused for not tackling this cold infinite void, but two who did were Stanley Kubrick with "2001: A Space Odyssey," and Andrei Tarkovsky with his 1972 film, "Solaris." Thirty years later, our society is more technologically advanced than many had imagined. Yet more earthbound than any Baby Boomer would have predicted.
All of which makes watching Steven Soderburgh's remake of "Solaris" a strange revelation. It made me realize how much I'd missed my childhood awe of space. And while I would presumably have grown more patient and thoughtful over the years, "Solaris" had me questioning at what point pondering turns ponderous.
While briefly on Earth, "Solaris" is set in a future so near it looks like you could purchase it today at IKEA. The rest of the film takes place on a space station orbiting Solaris, an elegant pink ball given to majestic ballets of solar flares and meandering rivers of electrical impulses. George Clooney plays a psychologist named Kris Kelvin, who is summoned to the space station after receiving a distress call from a crew member reporting a very disturbing yet extremely vague on-board crisis that threatens the mission. With no further adieu, Kelvin is seen docking with the space station, where he finds all but two crew members dead or missing. The only one willing to talk is named Snow, and he puts the horrific situation into words that only stoned existentialist college students can pretend to understand. Brilliantly played by Jeremy Davies, Snow is the only character in this film allowed to be simply and amusingly human.
But it turns out human purity is the very problem on board Solaris. Somebody or something -- most likely the brain-like planet itself -- has been reading the crews’ minds while they sleep and presenting them with flesh and blood replicas of the people they dream about. That includes Kelvin's dead wife, Rheya, played by the lovely Natascha McElhone. It's a terrifically haunting premise. But haunting isn't the problem with "Solaris." It’s got the haunting thing down cold. Very cold. And lonely. Even when the two lost lovers are forever enjoined in a dream ending that's visible from light years away, it feels lonely. The problem with "Solaris" is that it never quite warrants the long, unexplained journey to get there. Though Soderburgh's version clocks in nearly an hour under Tarkovsky's, he manages to pack it with plenty of bleak, empty spaces and characters of vast overwhelming sadness.
Space is not the star of "Solaris." A strange planet where the unexplainable happens is just one of many devices for pursuing metaphors and avoiding rules. George Clooney is the star of "Solaris," and rumors that he appears naked prove to be true. If this drives people to the theater, they will find themselves highly challenged by the remainder of the film, in which Clooney is fully dressed and unsmiling. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But as both cinematic and existential escapes go, "Solaris" is a long weekend in a beautiful but empty hotel. And it’s very cold outside.
© 2002 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 11/27/02
U.S. - 2002