Steven Soderbergh's foray into science fiction is a defiant piece of work -- a psychological thriller with no thrills, a love story with no joy, a ghost story where the ghosts win. Well acted and thoughtfully filmed, it teases viewers into thinking something extraordinary is going to happen, then leads them in a maddening spiral around what happened in the past, through the chilling present and back to the mind-numbing future.
In a word, it's dull.
Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem and a previous film adaptation by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris qualifies as science fiction only because it is set some time in the future, largely on a space station orbiting the planet of the title's name. In reality, it is an extended grief therapy session.
George Clooney stars as Chris Kelvin, a psychiatrist, gloomily plodding through his days on Earth until he receives a call from his old friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), a scientist aboard the spaceship Prometheus. Gibarian reports strange goings-on and asks Kelvin to come up and have a look.
Kelvin is immediately drawn into the mystery of the happenings on Prometheus by the discovery of a series of bloody footprints and handprints, Gibarian's corpse, and a discombobulated surviving crew. Jeremy Davies hams it up as Snow, a spaced-out technician, and Viola Davis gives the film's strongest performance as Gordon, a distraught scientist who's ready to cut the crap and abandon the mission. (Davis' film career gets a powerful boost this season with appearances in this film, Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven and Denzel Washington's upcoming Antwone Fisher).
Dr. Kelvin, we soon learn, is still grieving the passing a few years back of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). A dream sequence draws us into his past, and then culminates with the appearance of Rheya, or a facsimile of her, in his bed his first night on Prometheus. Clooney is terrific at combining terror, confusion, sorrow and relief in his early scenes with McElhone, a camera magnet with her heart-shaped face and wide, expressive eyes. Solaris, it seems, has the power to regenerate images of past life over and over, posing a moral dilemma for Kelvin and the others on Prometheus who have also been visited by regenerated loved ones. Can we undo the mistakes of the past? Can we reconcile ourselves to a love life experienced outside the realm of physical reality?
Solaris stumbles when it reverts to Kelvin and Rheya's life on Earth in flashbacks, revealing the all-too-human failures of their relatively short-lived relationship. The basis of their undying love is undermined and the events on Prometheus begin to wear thin.
Had Solaris concentrated more on the phenomenon that causes the resurrection of dead folks in space, or on the crew members' plans to rid the ship of the visiting phantoms, it might have sustained more interest. As it is, we are weary of the canned psycho-drama by the film's end, and more than a little disillusioned at its barely cloaked conclusion that suicide, yes, is painless.
Soderbergh feigns depth with long pauses and overworked scenes. His camera work is gorgeous and so are his stars, but Solaris is ultimately an empty ride.
-- Kathryn Eastburn