In a move as audacious as it is disastrous, Steve Soderbergh has decided to push the edges of what filmmaking can be and created in SOLARIS not so much a motion picture as a still life. One that is more sleep-inducing than a warm glass of milk and a bottle of Seconal. It is remarkable in that, even though intellectually we can see people moving on screen — but not much — and though we hear them speaking — though rarely above a whisper — the impression one comes away with is a flat canvas of figures hidden in a chiarusco so deep that one wonders why Mr. Soderbergh bothered to use any lighting at all. Let me put it this way, not even the prolonged shots of George Clooney’s exquisitely formed tush makes this worth seeing.
Soderbergh has adapted Stanislav Lem’s book of the same name. This was turned into a film in Lem’s native USSR, now Russia, back in the 70s by Andrei Tarkovsky, and it was a wonderful exploration of how the ghosts of our past haunt our present and shape our future. Here it’s just so much art direction using a color palette that would melt away if even a hint of an earth tone ventured into its blue-gray expanse.
The story concerns the eerie doings on a space station orbiting something called Solaris, a plasmatic watery glob that looks a bit like a hopped-up lava lamp. Chris Kelvin, a psychiatrist dealing with the suicide of his beloved wife, is called upon by an old friend working on the station to come and help with some unspecified problem. Alas, when Chris arrives, he finds only madness, death, and mystery. His friend has committed suicide, someone else has been murdered, and the only two people left are less than compos mentis. You, me, we’d call the men in white coats, or whatever they would be wearing in this time set in an unspecified future, but Chris doesn’t.
The ship’s physicist has locked herself in her cabin, and the other crewmember, played as a sweetly eccentric nutcase by Jeremy Davies, babbles on and on about what’s going on but never really explains it. He does, however, warn Chris to sleep with his door locked. He does, but it doesn’t prevent what looks to be his dead wife (Natsascha McElhone), looking very healthy and just a little frisky, from finding her way in and getting re-acquainted with her spouse. It seems that on space station Solaris, the dead come back in startlingly corporeal form to haunt the not altogether unwilling living.
Clooney rises above the mess by evoking his inner turmoil with poignant despair expertly played. He’s a man who has tried to shut down emotionally in order to maintain his equilibrium, but instead has only succeeded in creating a brittle shell that the most delicate of emotional taps could shatter. Too bad that the only empathy we have for him is that he’s wasted in this cold and sterile film environment.
For all of Soderbergh’s sins here, the worst may be the way he mimics the style, but not the substance, of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. He has completely missed Kubrick’s mordant wit and even more biting irony. Instead he presents us with a bleak, almost colorless tableau where the only way to pass the time is to spot which camera move, or lack thereof, came from which part of 2001. Or EYES WIDE SHUT. Or any of his other later works. Mercifully this, does little to prevent the audience from dropping into the arms of Morpheus to judge by the nodding of heads and the gentle snoring exhibited by the preview audience with which I endured this 90 minutes or so of my life that I won’t be getting back. And speaking of which, a nap would be a much more productive way to spend your time.