There has been no contact with the crew studying the strange planet Solaris. After one very odd communication, where the leader of the group asks for help but refuses to attempt to explain what is going on, no further messages are received. A psychiatrist, Chris Kelvin, is sent alone to determine the status of the crew and bring them back, if they are alive. However, upon arriving at the station above Solaris, he finds that two crewmembers are dead, one has gone missing, and a child is running around in the shadows, even though there shouldn't be.
'Solaris' is the latest film of the wildly popular Steven Soderbergh, who over the last couple of years has created the critical and box office favorites 'Erin Brockovich', 'Traffic' and 'Ocean's Eleven', which also starred George Clooney. While those Golden Three were fairly intelligent, they were still relatively mainstream; 'Solaris' is anything but. From the trailers and television ads it is clear that Solaris is not a movie for everyone - it is going to be slow and deep. The people who don't go for these kind of thinker films are already staying clear, but what about the people that are intrigued by its blend of romance and mystery, and science-fiction aspect? Is Solaris worth the time? Is it worth the many hours afterwards it takes to ponder the meaning of the film?
George Clooney stars as Kelvin, a smart man very much established in the real world. The circumstances are strange, but he doesn't back down; his friend has committed suicide, another is dead, and yet another is missing. A child is hiding on the station - he just appeared one day - and as it turns out all of the crewmembers, surviving and deceased, have manifestations of a loved one lurking in the shadows. They are obviously related to Solaris, but are they here to do good, to do evil, or just to be? Yes, the circumstances are strange, enough to make any man go over the edge, but Kelvin presses on, determined to find an answer.
Clooney turns in one of his best performances to date; in the last few years, he really has been at the top of his game. Since 1998, he has consistently chosen critical favorites, like 'Out of Sight' (also a Soderbergh film), 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?', 'The Thin Red Line', 'Three Kings' and 'Ocean's Eleven'. Ever since 'Batman and Robin', he has been wise to look at the script before signing on. In 'Solaris', he still has the charm people have come to know and love since "E.R.," but he is darker, smarter, and more human. His character is flawed by the one emotion that shouldn't be a flaw - love - and he is visibly trying to overcome it over the course of the entire movie. Unfortunately, he will see no Oscar nomination this year, as 'Solaris' itself lacks the kind of box office thrust and critical praise that a movie needs to get its actors in the limelight. Nevertheless, we can say he did a good job: "Good job, George Clooney."
The rest of the cast is pretty good, but nowhere as powerful. I liked Jeremy Davies (best known for 'Saving Private Ryan') as the mumbling, calmly insane scientist who just sits in the background while weird things continue to happen, but there were people who just found him irritating. Viola Davis (who had a small role in 'Out of Sight') is pretty good, but her character is never really developed and never explained. As for Natascha McElhone (who had large roles in 'Ronin' and 'The Truman Show'), who plays Kelvin's wife Rheya, she does an adequate job, but the chemistry between the two actors feels awkward. Yes, she is supposed to have returned from the dead, so that would lead to some awkwardness, but there is just something that doesn't click between her and Clooney. Furthermore, while I mean no disrespect, as she is a very pretty woman, I found the many close-up shots of her rather creepy. Perhaps this was intended or perhaps not, but if I were Clooney, I would have nightmares.
From the first minute, 'Solaris' is captivating. I was expecting a long introduction to Kelvin and Rheya and her death, but instead Soderbergh jumps right to the "action" and almost instantaneously has Clooney onboard the space ship, following a trail of blood. The first few minutes are suspenseful, and things really do not let up for a while as Clooney is reunited with "his wife," and the mystery continues to unfold. Are these manifestations going to turn on the humans, or are they there to comfort them? Soderbergh does a good job of leaving that question up in the air for most of the movie.
Soderbergh continues to show his power behind the camera, as 'Solaris' is another beautifully shot film that looks different from all of his others (none of his films really look the same as any other). For obvious reasons, there is a '2001-esque' feel to the film, though Soderbergh generally does not hold onto single shots as long as Kubrick tended to. His integration of flashbacks to Kelvin and Rheya is excellent.
When a movie is weird, it can be either really good or really bad, or at least it will divide people into a very black and white spectrum. I tend to fall into the middle even if I do not understand a film, as I acknowledge that people will be very divided on the issue. 'Solaris' is definitely a weird film, and people will definitely be divided as to whether they liked it or not. A younger couple left the theater halfway through after snickering for most of the movie, and another, married couple must have been bored enough that the woman started playing with her wedding ring, to the point that it came off and rolled several yards through the theater. Others were captivated. I was captivated for the first two-thirds.
While I was expecting a weird movie with a weird ending, 'Solaris' lacks the closure that any movie needs to make the audience feel as though they got their money's worth. The first two-thirds of the film are well done and strangely intense, as Clooney tries to piece together the pieces of the puzzle, and his own thoughts on the possibility that his wife has actually returned to him, while knowing that these manifestations have directly or indirectly lead to the death or disappearance of three crewmembers. It's a good, thought-provoking storyline.
Unfortunately, the slowly unfolding plot becomes a little too slow in the latter sections of the film. I checked my watch once or twice, and that generally is not a good sign. It was beginning to become clear that not everything was going to be explained, but what I was not expecting was that nothing would be explained. Upon leaving the theater I did not really understand what had happened, so I told myself I would sit on it for a day or two before writing this review to allow my brain the time to process the strangeness of the film. However, upon writing this review three days after seeing the film, all I can say is that I still do not really understand what Soderbergh was trying to get at, and that I really don't care. The ending is disappointing. There are just so many loose ends that are never resolved, and Soderbergh could have made so much more out of it. 'Solaris' could have been an effective thriller, but instead it is an overly diluted romance, with no real romance. Am I supposed to be happy?
The truth is that I could have created a much more straightforward ending that would have made the film much more entertaining, or at the same time I could have done an equally weird ending that would have been a lot more satisfying. I know exactly what I would do, and neither of my options is anywhere close to Soderbergh's final cut. 'Solaris' is captivating and compelling, but without an ending, that means very little. Still, some people may be able to see what Soderbergh was trying to get at and appreciate it; others just won't care and vow to never see this film again. As for me, it is a mixed bag, as the film had so much quality to it yet at the same time felt so uncompleted and so unfulfilling.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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