Solaris (2002) Movie Review

I’ve never been accused of going out of my way to see the year’s (insert present year here) “most thought-provoking movie”. It’s commonly known that I don’t always need a film to challenge me emotionally or question the way I see things in order to find it satisfying. (“The Two Towers” and “Blade 2” certainly attests to this shallowness, natch.) It’s then a complete shock to me that I found Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris” to be vastly thought provoking and, at the same time, thoroughly entertaining.

“Solaris” opens with a somber Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) wandering through life in the aftermath of his wife’s suicide. Despondent and lacking in any reason to continue on, Kelvin gets a message from an old friend presently on a space mission. The friend, along with some colleagues, are in a space station orbiting a planet called Solaris, which seems to be giving off strange energy. Kelvin is recruited to go to the space station and investigate. Upon arriving, Kelvin finds two of the crewmen dead, including his friend, and the only two survivors are a little…weird. The planet, as it turns out, possesses something akin to sentient life. Not only that, but it can read the minds of the astronauts orbiting it, and create living and breathing beings from their memories. In essence, it’s bringing back all of their dead loved ones. But for what reason?

On his first night on the space station, Kelvin wakes up to discover that his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), is alive and well, although she doesn’t remember a lot of things, including how she got on the space station. As it turns out, similar events, and “visitors”, have appeared to the other crewmen. Snow (Jeremy Davies) may have gone insane as a result; and the other survivor, Gordon (Viola Davis), is hiding secrets of her own. The question is: What does the planet want? Or is the better question, Does it even matter?

Written and directed by Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”) from a novel by Stanislaw Lem, “Solaris” is an incredibly risky venture by the prolific director. It’s also a big challenge for its star George Clooney, considering that “Solaris” is not the most commercial film the actor has done. And judging by mainstream audience’s utter disregard for the picture, “Solaris” has proven to be every bit as unprofitable as earlier thought. This is a shame, because “Solaris” is probably the most interesting, complex, and rewarding film of 2002.

The film’s whole science fiction angle is inconsequential to the movie. “Solaris” isn’t about space exploration or technology or possible contact with alien life forms. Even the planet itself, for all the money spent to bring it to pulsating life, is just a sidebar to be discussed when discussions about the movie’s technical achievements (of which there are many) comes to light. The film is really about the exploration of the human mind, and all the little things that goes into our construction of ourselves.

In “Solaris”, the visitors that are created from the character’s memories have unclear, fragmented memories of their own, and their physical attributes are exactly as the characters envision them. In truth, the visitors are not real, but merely creations of faulty memory. The existence of ourselves, and others, the film seems to be pointing out, all depends on something as unreliable as “memory.” And because Clooney’s Kelvin can only remember his wife’s suicide, the “re-born” Rheya is unable to shake the notion of suicide. Is that all she is? No, but it’s the most important thing he attributes to her memory.

George Clooney (“Out of Sight”) has given one of his best performances here. Clooney’s Kelvin, as the film opens, is a shadow of his former self. The character has been stripped of everything we consider to be important as human beings — emotion and passion. He has forgotten everything in favor of morbid thoughts of Rheya and the events leading up to her death. It is all he can think about. And because Kelvin blames himself for Rheya’s death, her return signals a second chance for him — a chance to finally do the right thing, whatever that may be. For her part, Natascha McElhone’s Rheya becomes even more distraught when she discovers her true status. Knowing that she is not supposed to be alive, Rheya once again succumbs to the idea of suicide as the most viable option. As Rheya, McElhone (“Fear Dot Com”) is appropriately creepy, even scary.

The film’s atmosphere is one of fantasy and lacking in any “realness”, as if the film is one long dream sequence. Adding to this is the sight, or lack thereof, of Rheya in shadows. The film is framed in such a way that things, and people, seem to move only when absolutely necessary. The film looks fantastic, and Soderbergh’s camera captures every line and crease on Clooney’s face; every paranoia and emotion racing through his hollowed, and damaged, eyes.

Running at just over 90 minutes long, “Solaris” could easily have been a longer film. Soderbergh has managed to somehow restrain himself tremendously from going overboard by including unnecessary segments, and it’s admirable. The film could have run another 30 minutes, or even an hour, and still be just as good. There is barely any dialogue, and true to the movie’s treatment of its sci-fi angle as being irrelevant to the story, there is only a couple of minutes of techno babble in the entire thing. The rest of “Solaris” is all meditations on the human psyche and our perception of what is real and what is truth. Are the things we remember really how things were, or just the way we want them to be?

Using a camera that refuses to hurry, and a haunting soundtrack that remains embedded in the background, Soderbergh has crafted what I believe to be the best film of 2002. What you will make of the film really depends on what you bring to it. It’s many ideas and concepts are fluid and open to different interpretations. The ending leaves some doubt, similar to the ending of “Blade Runner”, as to the continued perception of what is real or fake, or what is and what is hoped.

I’m only sorry it took me so long to take a chance on “Solaris.” Don’t make the same mistake.

Steven Soderbergh (director) / Stanislaw Lem (novel), Steven Soderbergh (screenplay)
CAST: George Clooney …. Chris Kelvin
Natascha McElhone …. Rheya Kelvin
Jeremy Davies …. Snow
Viola Davis …. Helen Gordon
Ulrich Tukur …. Gibarian

Buy Solaris on DVD