AFTER GLIDING FROM SUCCESS TO SUCCESS, Steven Soderbergh has hit a tricky patch. His last film, Full Frontal, a low-budget palate-cleanser, was greeted with breathtaking vituperation by critics who somehow seemed to find it more pretentious than, say, Road to Perdition. His daring new project, Solaris, is a dead-serious, big-budget remake of the fabled 1972 art film by the late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. As such, it threatens to alienate both the mass audience that expects a normal George Clooney movie and cineastes loyal to the original: Even before Soderbergh began shooting, a Tarkovsky fan chased him down the streets of Manhattan yelling, "You should be ashamed of yourself!"
Really? A piece of metaphysical sci-fi, the original film was conceived as a response to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Tarkovsky found technically dazzling but inhuman. Giving its story the full Russian treatment (its deep-dish philosophical discussions come garnished with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky), Tarkovsky's portentous 165-minute yarn unfolded at about the same pleasurable pace as global warming. When I saw it back in college, I found it almost un-watchable and embraced David Thomson's verdict that an episode of Star Trek had explored the same themes "with more wit and ingenuity, less sentimentality, and at a third the length."
Clocking in at a lean 96 minutes, Soderbergh's Solaris is a pared-down sliver of storytelling and, like the original, almost incidentally a work of science fiction. Clooney stars as Chris Kelvin, a disillusioned shrink who's spent years grieving for his dead wife, Rheya, when he receives an enigmatic call for help from a scientist friend on a space station near Solaris, a swirling, oceanic planet which, the crew is discovering, is essentially a gigantic brain. Arriving at the station, he finds his pal dead and the place deserted, except for a jittery geek named Snow (Jeremy Davies), whose mind, mouth and hands play to different time signatures, and Gordon (Viola Davis), a stolid researcher who for some reason doesn't want to leave her cabin. A vast, pulsing consciousness, Solaris has the ability to bring human memories to life, and as Kelvin sleeps, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) shows up in his room. Freaked out, he activates a space pod and banishes the simulacrum into deep space. But Rheya keeps coming back (imagine a melancholy version of Groundhog Day), and though he knows she's merely a living, breathing emanation, the lovesick Kelvin starts sleeping with her, wondering whether he can save the new Rheya to atone for not saving his real wife back on Earth.
In telling this tautly elliptical story of love, memory, guilt and redemption, Soderbergh has deliberately avoided Tarkovsky's trademark slow pace and long takes. Kelvin's dreamlike reality is caught in the film's look, with its hallucinatory crispness, symbolic battle between golds and blues (à la Traffic), and occasional use of tight focus to give background or foreground shapes an ambiguous fluidity. This is a movie about seeing, and Soderbergh pays careful attention to his characters' eyes -- we watch them light up, change color and fall so deeply into shadow that they resemble black, hollow sockets. If his visual style here has a shortcoming, it's that his images have the burnished allure of a good Calvin Klein ad -- arresting, but ultimately unmemorable. There's none of the transcendent imagery you find in, well, Tarkovsky.
As always, Soderbergh's terrific with actors. He wins a forceful turn from Viola Davis, who gives Gordon a ferocious sense of rationality. When she insists that the new Rheya isn't human, she knows exactly what she's saying (even if it makes her sound inhumane). Eventually, so does Rheya herself, who, like a fugitive from a Philip K. Dick novel, comes to realize that she's not a real woman but only a sentient figment of Kelvin's memories and desires. This weird identity crisis -- am I real or just someone's dream come to life? -- makes her Solaris' most poignant character and draws out McElhone's richest screen performance to date. In the actress' best scene, Kelvin keeps asking if she's all right, and Rheya keeps saying, "Yeah," her awareness of her tragic situation growing each time she says it.
UNTIL NOW, GEORGE CLOONEY HAS ALWAYS seemed a present-day version of Cary Grant or Clark Gable (both of whom he successfully knocked off in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) -- an old-school movie star better known for virile charm than inner depth. He's taken a big chance with Kelvin, a role that forces him to an impressive new level of emotionalism: For a guy who's spent his career playing cool, he's strikingly good at acting scared, freaked-out, shattered. (Whether audiences want this from him is another question.) Caught in ever more tortured bafflement, he moves around the space station with an odd, clenched walk and a spooked expression of existential distress. Oddly enough, Clooney's at his worst in the gilded, rather trite flashbacks to Kelvin and Rheya's previous life together -- precisely the scenes that come closest to asking him to "do Clooney." The same is true of Solaris as a whole, which is far more compelling in space than it is on terra firma. The flashbacks to planet Earth are far too explicit, cheating Kelvin and Rheya's relationship of its potential depth and mystery. (Julia Roberts and Albert Finney shared a far more resonant bond in Erin Brockovich.) And although the deft use of flashbacks is a Soderbergh touchstone, here the earthbound romance is so tinny that Clooney and McElhone had to win me back each time we returned to Solaris.
They never fully did. While I could tell the love story was supposed to be moving, I kept feeling the characters' passion struggling against the virtuosity of Soderbergh's direction, which is so tight, so gorgeously lit, so worked that even when he wants scenes to be emotionally incandescent, they wind up detached, even chilly. Unlike Todd Haynes in Far From Heaven (which Soderbergh and Clooney helped produce), he hasn't yet found a way to make his personal projects touch us. This isn't to say Solaris is insincere. Soderbergh has talked in interviews of his personal remoteness, and here you feel him bravely pushing himself toward new levels of personal exposure and artistic ambition.
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If he doesn't wholly succeed, this is at least partly due to the profound culture clash at this project's very core. Following his own tastes (think of Kafka), Soderbergh has taken a story that makes perfect sense in romantic, metaphysics-mad Eastern Europe, then -- heroically -- tried to make it fit within the constraints of Hollywood filmmaking. I watched much of the new Solaris with the sense that something often felt slightly "off" about the characters and their preoccupations. Then during the dinner-party scene, when Kelvin, Rheya and their friends talk, with almost comical maladroitness, about God and the universe, I realized what it was: They seem to have been imported from a foreign movie.
Which, of course, they were. An added dividend of seeing Soderbergh's Solaris is that it sent me back for a second look at Tarkovsky's, which I caught on the spanking-new Criterion DVD, with its ravishing print, elegant introductory essay by critic Philip Lopate and interviews with (among others) Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science-fiction novelist who wrote the 1960 original, considered something of a classic.
This time, I was patient. To appreciate the film, you must give yourself over to its slow rhythms, which eventually enfold you in a profound sense of moral gravity that Soderbergh's faster pace never quite reaches. Doing so, I discovered that the 1972 Solaris is full of pleasures and fascinations, be it the milky-watery evocation of the planet Solaris, the hypnotic five-minute scene of a car driving through the futuristic-looking outskirts of '70s Tokyo (shades of Alphaville), or an exquisite 30 seconds of weightlessness when a floating candelabrum grazes a chandelier, prompting it to shiver. Halfway through Tarkovsky's film, a character declares, "In my opinion, we have lost our sense of the cosmic." For reasons of culture as much as anything else, that loss is felt acutely in Soderbergh's Solaris, which is rooted in American psychologism, not Slavic spirituality. In an interview on the DVD, Lem talks about how Tarkovsky missed the point of his novel by focusing on the metaphysical allure of Russian soil rather than on the excitement of new discoveries on Solaris. He disliked Tarkovsky's movie, and I'd guess that Tarkovsky wouldn't like Soderbergh's, which he would doubtless find vulgar (one pictures him shuddering at the sight of Clooney's bare buns). But who cares? It's fascinating to have so many different interpretations of the same story, and we don't have to see them in opposition. Though I will admit that I was terribly wrong about one thing: Tarkovsky's version is undeniably better -- and certainly more visionary -- than Gene Roddenberry's.
SOLARIS | Directed by STEVEN SODERBERGH | Written by SODERBERGH, from the novel by Stanislaw Lem | Produced by JAMES CAMERON, JON LANDAU and RAE SANCHINI | Released by Twentieth Century Fox | Citywide