Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis
“Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.” – Dylan Thomas
Solaris is one of those movies that I love getting the chance to write about. The kind that most people won’t like, because they were expecting something else; the kind of film that leaves the young teenage couple in front of you complaining, quite eruditely, at film’s end: “That was total crap,” while the old age couple behind you ponder out loud if this was an actual movie or some shared hallucination from an overdose of vitamin pills before the show.
Which is to say, of course, that I absolutely loved every second of it. And while it is true that Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is one of the longest 98 minute films you will probably ever see in your lifetime – owing to its hypnotically slow pacing – it is also true that is one of the greatest 98 minute films you will ever see.
But – and this is important – you have to be open to it; you have to engage with it. This is not a movie here to spoon-feed you answers. Don’t come in with any preconceived notions – even if you’ve read the book or seen the original Andrei Tarkovsky version of the film – leave all of it at the door. Except for the notion that the studio has worked quite hard to get into your head, that notion being the one wherein you see George Clooney’s butt in the movie. If that is the preconceived notion you have going into the film, then you will be satisfied. If that is the main reason you paid to see this film, however, you most definitely will not.
Steven Soderbergh’s career has been a series of risks, and perhaps none has ever been greater than his choice to adapt Solaris, a book revered by science fiction enthusiasts and a Russian film already adored by cinephiles the world over. One might question why Soderbergh decided to make such a film, but for any kind of true answer to that question, one must see it on screen to realize the point of this updated version. This new Solaris is definitely not completely faithful to either the seminal book or the earlier film version – instead, Soderbergh uses the basic framework and plot of both, then proceeds to parse out bits and pieces that he can use to weave into his ultimate themes for the movie, which are quite different than either original novelist Stanislaw Lem’s or Tarkosky’s.
Soderbergh, like Tarkovsky before him, is attempting to make a film that is a meditation, but whereas Tarkovsky was more concerned with God, life, death, Communism and the sort, Soderbergh seems to have one overriding theme that ultimately trumps them all: love. What it means to be in love, what love involves, what death can do to love, and how far one is willing to go for another chance at love (and forgiveness).
Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a broken man when first we see him. He looks to be carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders as he moves monotonously through his day. He is a grief counselor, and quite a good one we are led to believe, but he is still haunted by the suicide of his wife Rheya a few years ago, still feels the guilt and pain of it all. It’s a sadness that wears itself upon Clooney’s brow and in the lines around his face. Clooney does an amazing job of turning off his considerable movie star charisma and charm – a task no doubt harder than it may sound – and quickly draws us in to this beaten but breathing man.
Early in the film, Kelvin is summoned to a NASA-like place where he views a message from an old friend who is imploring that he come aboard the space station hovering around the planet Solaris, and attempt to help them fix what is happening to the astronauts on board. Something very bizarre is occurring and they need help fast – and the doctor thinks Kelvin is the best possible man, “because of his experiences” to come quickly on board. Kelvin agrees to help out. By the time he reaches the ship, his friend is dead. He committed suicide.
The next stretch of the film is the biggest litmus test for audiences, as Clooney slowly, gradually, cautiously explores the rest of the ship. There is no dialogue and precious little music. There is nothing popping out of anywhere to scare anybody. In essence, there is little here for most thrill-seeking, opening-weekend-at-the-mall audiences – a complaint which you will no doubt hear countless times about this film.
Eventually, he meets up with Snow (in a fascinating performance by Jeremy Davies) who gives stuttered, stoned, mysterious answers to nearly all of Kelvin’s questions, none more important than his remark: “I could tell you what’s been going on here, but I don’t know if that would tell you what’s going on here.” He also advises him to sleep with his door locked. Kelvin then meets Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis), who is scared and determined to beat whatever it is that is happening all at once. But for the moment, she can’t even come out of her room.
Kelvin is both intrigued and perplexed. He is assured by the crew that he will not be able to fully understand until “it” has happened to him. As Kelvin falls asleep that first night, and begins to dream about his first meeting with his wife, “it” happens to him – and Solaris begins to narrow in on its main focus. You see, somehow Solaris is able to read one’s mind and bring back to them the one person from their past that has meant the most to them, good or bad. Thus when Kelvin wakes up, he finds his wife Rheya alive, and right beside him in the bed.
But, of course, it’s not really her, it’s merely a facsimile of her, constructed (we eventually find out) entirely of Kelvin’s own memories of her. Weaving the current “copy” Rheya in with flashbacks to their life on earth together, we see the discrepancies – and the wonderful love that existed between Kelvin and Rheya once upon a time. However, being a carbon copy construct of his memories of her, she is bound to repeat what had happened in her previous life. (“I am suicidal because you remember me as suicidal!” she screams to him at one point.) And for sure, this is quite confusing to an audience, as it is to Kelvin himself. But if you’re waiting around for an answer – and many in the audience didn’t even bother to wait, leaving before the film’s end – you’re not going to get one. Instead, you’ll get something much more valuable: ideas, philosophical quandaries, theories of identity and the role love plays in all of our lives. I would pay to watch this film a thousand times, back to back, before I would spend one penny on most other recent films.
Solaris is a masterpiece, and I don’t mind saying so. If it takes the rest of the country ten or so years to figure that out, those of us who champion it today will still be around, welcoming you with open arms. It’s a film that offers questions and rewards in abundance, tackles issues that are hardly box-office fodder, and dares (in the age of Michael Bay and MTV style editing) to take its precious time. And every single minute is, in the film’s near perfect end, completely worth it.