December, 2002, Drama

Steven Soderbergh is among the very best directors working in American movies today. From his first film, Sex, Lies & Videotape to such recent hits as Erin Brockovich and Traffic, Soderbergh has demonstrated a wonderful ability to create original work from his own scripts, adapt the work of others, and accomplish the rare trick of being both commercially successful and artistically polished. In Solaris, he once again revisits the work of an earlier filmmaker; in this instance, a 30 year-old Russian science fiction film by Andrei Tarkovsky. Unfortunately, the comparison with the original doesn't add to Soderberg's luster.

It's not hard to understand why the project appealed to him; using the tale of a manned space vehicle gone suspiciously silent, the director and his lead, (played with a deliberate and uncharacteristic lack of charisma by George Clooney) explore the importance of memory and the ability to put the past in proper perspective. Clooney plays a psychologist who's sent to determine why the crew of a manned space mission located near the planet Solaris have suddenly stopped communicating with earth. When Clooney, who's lost wife Natascha McElhone to suicide, arrives at the space station, he finds only two crew members still alive and much evidence of an unspecified madness gripping both of them. The reason becomes apparent when Clooney, sleeping fitfully on his first night aboard, suddenly gets a visit from the recently deceased McElhone, who enigmatically tells him she can't quite figure out who she is, and how she got there. Does the mysterious planet Solaris have the power to replicate humans? Is this McElhone merely a projection of Clooney's guilt and desire? The apparition is sufficiently real for Clooney; he has to decide whether to trust what his intellect tells him and return to earth, or remake his own past and recapture the woman he still loves by remaining on board, drawing ever closer to either a collision with Solaris or absorption into it. 

The cast is small, the sets deliberately claustrophobic and the pace so measured that no dramatic tension is possible; even the crucial relationship which forms the core of the movie isn't well served by McElhone's interpretation of the suicidal spouse whose unexplained but emphatic rejection of certain aspects of her life with Clooney are conveyed through a series of flashbacks which slow the momentum of the film even further.

Alas, good intentions do not a good movie make; especially when they're the work of an otherwise thoughtful and talented filmmaker. This one's a real disappointment; even Clooney's star power can't bring this "redo" back to life.

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