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Is Steven Soderbergh regressing? After making a handful of the most intelligent,
playful and captivating films of the late 1990's (Schizopolis, Out of Sight and The Limey), the director
transformed himself into a somewhat less interesting craftsman specializing in social
issue pictures like Erin Brockovich and Traffic. (Not surprisingly, it was this incarnation of
Soderbergh that won the Academy Award.) Ocean's
Eleven seemed to cement his reputation as Hollywood's latest golden boy, a man who
could deliver both Oscar-winners and star-studded blockbusters. With his last movie, Full Frontal, and his latest,
Solaris, it appears he's transformed himself
once again this time into a tiresome, pretentious film student.
For all its faults, Full Frontal at least delivered a few laughs. Solaris, based on the Stanislaw Lem novel that also inspired the 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky film of the same name, is a humorless journey into a philosophical void. George Clooney, everyone's first choice to portray existential angst, stars as Dr. Chris Kelvin, a psychologist summoned to investigate strange happenings on the space station orbiting the ocean planet Solaris. Kelvin is still haunted by the recent death of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), but he agrees to this mission because his old friend Gibarian, the commander of the space station Prometheus, insists that only Kelvin can help.
Upon his arrival aboard the Prometheus, Kelvin spots blood on the bulkheads and visitors who shouldn't be there. His friend is dead and the first crew member he encounters is gibbering and gesticulating like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Still, there's nothing he can't handle until he wakes up in bed next to his apparently living, breathing wife.
Convinced that some malevolent force on Solaris has conjured Rheya from his memories, Kelvin locks her in an escape pod and shoots her into space. But next time he wakes up, she's back again. This time he lets her stick around, despite her own fears and questions of her existence, and the insistence of the one sane member of the crew (Viola Davis) that Rheya and the other visitors aren't human and must be destroyed.
Though Soderbergh clearly wants to wrestle with weighty issues of memory, identity, mortality and loss, the script he's written for Solaris doesn't come close to being up to the task. Pronouncements like "I'm not the person I remember" fail to inspire deep thoughts. The closest thing to a philosophical debate is an exchange on the order of: "Am I alive or dead?" "I don't know."
Nor does the movie work on an emotional level. The flashbacks to the Kelvins' life on Earth are prosaic and uninvolving. There's no discernable chemistry between Clooney and McElhone and the director is overly reliant on meticulously lit close-ups of his lead actress's admittedly alluring face. The scenes aboard the space station are stultifying and claustrophobic rather than hypnotic, as is apparently intended. While the cinematography is impeccable (Soderbergh once again lenses under the pseudonym "Peter Andrews") and the set design convincing, the human element is sorely lacking. Jeremy Davies gives an unfortunate performance as the jabbering crew member Snow; he's showy and hyper without being the least bit interesting. Clooney tries to tamp down his movie star charisma and ends up a grim, joyless presence he looks like he'd be right at home back in the Batcave.
It's hard to believe Soderbergh had a movie this dull inside him. Solaris plays like an arthouse movie conceived by a Star Trek fan who read about Antonioni films in back issues of Sight and Sound. The word is that Soderbergh is burnt out after making so many movies back-to-back and plans to take a year off to recharge his batteries. It's a good idea if only he'd thought of it one movie sooner.
- Scott Von Doviak