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Solaris
Reviewed by Jason Myers, © 2002

Format: Movie
By:   Steven Soderbergh (director)
Genre:   Sci-Fi/Drama
Released:   November 27, 2002
Review Date:   November 25, 2002
Audience Rating:   PG-13
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)
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 ofĂ– 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 thought-provoking.

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 than that.

RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers aims high. But not high enough to try to join the Air Force. Wuss.

 
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