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SOLARIS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Ulrich Tukur
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 99 Minutes
Release Date: July 29, 2003

“What does Solaris want from us?”

“Why do you think it has to want something? This is why you have to leave. If you keep thinking there is a solution, you’ll die here.”

Film ****

Science fiction stories can be told in a couple of ways. It can be told within the format of nonstop action and effects, but it can also provide the backdrop for something completely unexpected and ultimately mind challenging. Solaris, director Steven Soderbergh’s interpretation of the novel by Polish writer Stainslaw Lem, is very much an example of the latter.  To experience it is very much like experiencing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. Soderbergh’s film, which is also produced by James Cameron, has much in common with the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece in terms of being both cerebral and conveying the feeling of a dreamlike experience. In the realm of science fiction, Solaris, though made into a film once before, stands out as quite an original piece.

In a tour de force performance, George Clooney stars as Dr. Chris Kelvin, an earthbound psychiatrist who has been in constant mourning since the death of his wife. One night, Kelvin receives a mysterious video message from a colleague, who is requesting his presence on board a nearly marooned space station that is orbiting the planet of Solaris. Kelvin’s assistance is requested to help determine a particular problem that the crew of the station has been dealing with.

When he arrives at the space station, he discovers his friend to be dead, leaving two somewhat unreliable survivors, shipmates Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davis). Neither of the two seem to provide completely reliable information on the condition of the station, especially with Gordon feeling continuously paranoid with the status. Kelvin soon discovers the details for himself during his first sleep on board the ship. After having dreams of his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), he is stunned to wake up to the sight of her right before his eyes.

Although he at first feels to be hallucinating, Kelvin comes to realize that she seems nothing short of the real thing. She is his “visitor”, which is what the other crewmembers have been encountering as well. The visitor is a composite of whatever lies mostly in someone’s memory. Because Kelvin cannot help but think about Rheya, her presence is indeed created, resembling everything that he remembers about her, including the emotional conflict that lead to her death. At one point, Rheya herself, or the visitor, begins to question her own reason for existing.

The strongest parts in Solaris is the way Soderbergh constructs various flashback scenes of Kelvin and Rheya, from their very first encounter to her tragic death. These sequences, accompanied by a superb, haunting music score by Cliff Martinez (Traffic), strike just the right notes in terms of revealing the right amount of back-story. Soderbergh does a remarkable job at structuring these dream sequences and flashbacks in a unique and fresh way, which is what makes him such a standout filmmaker.

For George Clooney, this marks a solid career high point. He has given many terrific performances, but nothing could have prepared me for his work here, which was no doubt his most challenging to date. It’s a side of the actor I’ve never seen before. Clooney is usually at best playing quick witted and charming characters, but Solaris requires him to venture into areas of anger and sadness, which very much separate this from any of his prior work. With the entire film on his shoulders, Clooney carries the weight flawlessly and magnificently.

I will go on the record to note that this is not a movie for everyone. The structuring and execution of this film results in an eccentric way of storytelling that mainstream audiences will find hard to swallow. It’s one of those films that does leave a few unanswered questions, but purposely, because it wants to challenge the minds of those who watch it. The film had many detractors, which no doubt kept it from being a hit at the box office, but those seeking a powerful, mind-bending experience should look no further, as this is one of the best films of 2002.

Video ****

Fox delivers their usual brilliance with a much beautiful looking presentation. It’s one of those films, like 2001, that HAS to be seen in widescreen, and that notion has been illustrated with this superb and terrifically detailed anamorphic transfer. Like his previous films, Soderbergh has fun using different tones of light and color. Solaris has many light and dark set pieces, all of which are displayed in magnificent form. Colors appear strong and natural as ever. The outer space shots are especially great to gaze upon. One of the best looking releases of this year.

Audio ****

The level of the 5.1 mix proves that even the quietest of the movies can still perform as strong. In fact, it’s the very notion of silence that help to provide some very sharp audio range. For instance, scenes without dialogue are backed up by the music score by Cliff Martinez, which alone is delivered in a superb form. Dialogue delivery is sharp and flawless to a tee, and the numerous instances of sound effects provided by the very atmosphere of the sets are nothing short of astounding. High marks, indeed!

Features ***1/2

A near-perfect offering of supplements, including a terrific commentary with Steven Soderbergh and producer James Cameron, which is dead on perfect on a second viewing in terms of explanation of anything that may leave you puzzled. Also featured are two documentaries; HBO’s Making of Special and “Solaris: Behind the Planet”, excerpts from the screenplay and a teaser and a trailer, as well as trailers for Master and Commander and Le Divorce.

Summary:

Rich and beautiful, both in its look and story, Solaris is a return to the kind of science fiction cinema that was perfected by Stanley Kubrick. A daring and wonderfully crafted piece, and a high point for both George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh.