In brief: A handful of scientists are on a space station studying a cosmic phenomena
known as Solaris (looking, in all its elegantly flowing energy glory, like pretty
much every Star Trek
space anomaly ever encountered). When mysterious things
start happening, a psychologist (George Clooney) is sent to investigate. Wackiness
(the philosophical/emotional kind) ensues.
On its surface, Solaris (based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem) is a ponderous,
existential piece of science fiction film-making for those nostalgic for the good
old days ofÖ well, the original Russian version of Solaris or Stanley Kubrick's
2001: A Space Odyssey. It's not hard to see shades of 2001 in the
lights reflecting off of Clooney's spacesuit helmet. But while it's a nice change
of pace to see a sci-fi movie with nary an explosion or laser beam in sight, Steven
Soderbergh's Solaris, with all its solemnity, isn't complex enough to offer
any enlightenment. In spite of its dream-like imagery and surreal moments, Solaris
has a simple A to B to C storyline that left me thinking, "Is that it?"
Perhaps Solaris is purposely straightforward. There are four main characters
in the movie, but most of them don't have much screen time, making Clooney's
psychologist character, Chris Kelvin, the center of the story. The whole film
is told from his perspective. Two of the three other characters have only small
parts to play, and those two characters remain hidden from sight so often that
it's as if they cease to exist when they aren't needed to move the plot along.
In addition to the four, we've got one inhabitant of the space station who's
only seen twice or thrice, one inhabitant who's referred to but never seen,
one inhabitant who, um, leaves the ship early on in the story, and a handful
who are gone before Chris Kelvin arrives. Because Solaris steadfastly
refuses to treat all these characters as anything more than background scenery,
I started to feel like the most interesting things were happening somewhere
else on the space station. Here we have all of these odd and unique perspectives
and existential crises that could be explored, but the one story we do explore
is just a man's grief over his dead wife. Not to say that that's not a worthy
topic for exploration, but Solaris doesn't really have anything new to
say on the subject.
Another reason that Solaris stays so earthbound is that the main character
is played by chiseled movie star George Clooney. I'm not qualified to comment
on the full body of Clooney's work, but thus far I've seen four Clooney movies
(Solaris, Batman and Robin, The Perfect Storm and Ocean's 11) and
the only role he's embodied perfectly is the one in Ocean's 11 where he
plays, guess what, a slick charmer with a movie-star smile who uses his cool as
currency. Clooney mopes properly and understatedly through Solaris, but
he doesn't disappear into the role, nor does he give a performance that's particularly
moving or even interesting to watch. Not that he's awful, he just never really
stops being George Clooney.
And George Clooney's GeorgeClooneyness is never more evident than when he drops
trou for a love scene part way through Solaris. When Clooney's bum made
its first of two appearances, a perceptible vibration went through the audience.
I'm not sure if the vibration was barely suppressed lust or barely suppressed
laughter (I'm guessing a little of both). Nobody actually, uh, cracked a joke,
and not one woman reached her hand out toward the screen in an attempt to vicariously
squeeze a meaty buttock. After all, this was a pretty respectful and subdued audience
of film geeks, reviewers, and industry insiders. Point is, the audience, even
those who had stopped seeing movie star George Clooney and started seeing psychologist
Chris Kelvin, were suddenly back to thinking about George Clooney, movie star.
Solaris has its moments, some of them even involving Clooney. The scene
where Chris sends his visitor away is truly haunting. And, on the FX side, there
is a scene involving acid that is truly truly awful (in a good and realistic way).
Jeremy Davies, in what's nearly a comic relief role, gives the most nuanced performance
of the movie as Snow. The music is excellent, and, near the end, the movie makes
an un-nervingly effective use of an ear-scraping, brain-beating wall of noise.
All of this, together with decent directing by Soderbergh and the eerie and gripping
dream sequences, kept me involved, kept me watching to see what would happen next.
But ultimately what does happen is not particularly surprising, insightful, or
I just realized that I've said very few good things about what is essentially
a well-made movie. I was relatively engaged while I was watching Solaris,
and when the credits rolled, I did not stand up and mutter, "That was a waste
of my life." Ultimately though, Solaris is both essentially well-made and
easily forgettable. I'm assuming that Soderbergh and Clooney were aiming higher