“Solaris,” Steven Soderbergh’s reimagination of Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name (Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s adapted the novel in 1971), is a murky amalgamation of both sci-fi and philosophical interrogation offering no answers or closure, while asking countless questions.
When Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) arrives on the Prometheus space station, a vessel modeled after a modernized S.S. Discovery from Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he finds splotches, prints and puddles of blood dotting the otherwise pristine-sleek futra-environment. Once aboard the Prometheus Kelvin locates the two remaining crewmembers, Snow and Gordon (Jeremy Davies, Viola Gordon) – both teetering in and out of sanity. Additionally, and most importantly, Kelvin meets the facsimile of his dead-by-suicide wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone, “The Truman Show”). It is around this reunion the film’s plot orbits, as hastily as the Prometheus circumnavigates the expanding gas giant Solaris.
From this spectral meeting aboard the Prometheus, the film’s action (to use a term, that “Solaris” actually has almost none of) takes place primarily on Earth and in the past through a series of flashbacks to Rheya and Chris’ short-lived relationship. During these flashbacks the dialogue is sparse and much of the acting is through facial expressions and body language. From this written silence, “Solaris” is a movie intentionally devoid of loquacious chatter and wisecracking heroes, and is instead, a pensive eerie study of the human conscience and memory systems.
“Solaris” is a romance, courting the idea of how we remember our loved ones when those memories are all we have left. Imposing our own interpretations on actions, we corrupt realities and oft fail to remember the truth – “Solaris” is Soderbergh at his most preachy, but he isn’t behind a bully pulpit.
Soderbergh was, however, behind the camera under a pseudonym (Peter Andrews) for the film’s cinematography. His characters are framed gently, with the Prometheus’ soft luminescence invoking spiritual warmth between Kelvin and the visiting Rheya. This heat carries into the flashbacks, which are splattered with playful sexuality and moments of confidence beneath low lighting.
Clooney’s Kelvin isn’t the wisenheimer Danny Ocean (“Ocean’s 11”), or the conniving Major Archie Gates (“Three Kings”); the role is an about face for the former “ER” doctor. The cerebral Kelvin is a damaged man, a man who slowly discovers that his memories of his wife are corroded and incorrect.
That wife is mercurial and tempermental, confused and empty while played with doe-eyed wonder. McElhone’s great, blank eyes desperately stare at her husband, looking for answers while simultaneously posing new questions.
“Solaris'” intimacy is augmented through the sound and score, both of which capture the isolation and intensity of the Prometheus and its crew’s situation. Cliff Martinez score is haunting and cryptic, foiling the affections of the reunited Kelvins with the reality of their actual distance. Martinez’s music isn’t overused; instead, it interjects and interrupts the ambient, stale hum of the Prometheus’ electronics.
The inaudible gaseous Solaris looms ominously behind the Prometheus, as much of a character as Kubrick’s monolith. With the disparity of the final descent into Solaris, the film ends quizzically, offering the closest thing to an answer – that somewhere in between love and death there is a third plane – and in Soderbergh’s world, that is “Solaris.”