Dir: Steven Soderbergh. US 2002. 99 minutes
For a film which purports to be about the deepest recesses of the human heart, this sci-fi romance is curiously lacking in emotion. It is a fatal flaw and, while the marquee value of international heartthrob Clooney and wunderkind film-maker Soderbergh promises encouraging opening-weekend numbers, not even the actor's phenomenal sex appeal - and his strong performance here - will rescue the picture from ultimate commercial oblivion. This will prove a special blow to fans of writer/director Soderbergh, coming as it does on the heels of his last fiasco, Full Frontal.
Based on the novel by Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem - and already adapted for the big screen once before, by Andrei Tarkovsky who walked off with the Special Jury Prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival - Solaris concerns psychologist-astronaut Chris Kelvin (Clooney, displaying impressive acting chops), who travels to a distant space station after receiving a cryptic video-taped message from the ship's commander, a close friend who is clearly unnerved by something. Kelvin arrives at the laboratory, which floats over the planet Solaris, to find that the captain has already committed suicide and that the two remaining crew members, the babbling Snow (Davies, overly-mannered) and the frightened Dr Gordon (an effective Davis), are acting very strangely indeed.
That night Kelvin learns first-hand of Solaris' strange powers. He dreams of his wife Rheya (an excellent McElhone, although she is too often called upon to simply smile enigmatically), who committed suicide after the break-up of their marriage. He awakens to find her lying next to him. He soon realises she is just an hallucination, a materialisation of his fantasies and desires, but Kelvin, still deeply in love with her and guilt-ridden over her death, sees this as a second chance for the couple.
While the film ostensibly deals with deep psychological and emotional issues - guilt, love, loss, identity - it remains as cold and austere as the metallic grey surfaces of the hovering space station. Clooney and McElhone make an extraordinarily handsome pair and the interplay between them suggests a strong chemistry, but little of that seeps into the surrounding atmosphere. The film's tone is almost stridently cerebral, so intellectually severe it seems to be hermetically-sealed.
Visually, cinematographer Soderbergh - going by his nom de camera, Peter Andrews - favours long, tracking shots which glide through the space station's eerily antiseptic interior, suggesting a living, breathing, albeit alien, presence. Appropriately cold and futuristic, the space sections are in sharp contrast to warmer, more colourful flashbacks of Kelvin and Rheya in happier times on earth. One particularly nice touch is the film's opening sequence, which reveals gigantic buildings and cavernous rooms which dwarf the humans who inhabit the landscape. Unfortunately, the big architecture wins out in the end. The profound emotional currents which should carry the story along seem to have drifted off into Solaris' vast surrounding oceans.
Pro co: Lightstorm Entertainment
US dist: 20th Century Fox
Intl dist: 20th Century Fox
Prods: James Cameron, Rae Sanchini, Jon Landau
Scr: Steven Soderbergh (based on the book by Stanislaw Lem)
Cinematographer: Peter Andrews
Prod des: Philip Messina
Ed: Mary Ann Bernard
Music: Cliff Martinez
Main cast: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis