"Solaris" (2002) is a challenging science-fiction movie that was written and directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars George Clooney. I watched this film on DVD recently and loved it, but I think it's aimed at viewers who like puzzle movies that pose open-ended questions.
I'm afraid that some people might settle in to watch "Solaris" with inappropriate expectations. This is not one of those George Clooney movies that makes for a pleasant evening’s entertainment—it’s a nearly humorless film that's difficult to understand and raises serious philosophical and psychological issues. The tone of the movie is contemplative: there are no action sequences, no razzle-dazzle special effects, and no gee-whiz high-tech gadgetry. There is a romantic relationship between characters portrayed by Clooney and Natascha McElhone, but that relationship is so bizarre that I don’t think most people will find the film satisfying as a romance. It seems to me the spirit of "Solaris" is somewhat akin to that of "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), although the newer film is slightly warmer and much less flashy than the older.
I suppose I should mention that "Solaris" (2002) is based on a 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem, and there’s also a 1972 Russian-language film based on that novel that’s been a cult favorite of cinephiles for years. But I don’t think you need to know anything about the novel or the Russian movie to appreciate the Soderbergh film, and I’m going to limit my discussion here to the 2002 version of "Solaris."
A lot of the pleasure of seeing "Solaris" for the first time is in the mesmerizing way the film unfolds, and I don’t want to spoil things for you by telling you too much. Still, I think a few words might be in order for those who don’t know anything about the movie.
The story takes place in the not-too-distant future when humans have established a space station in orbit around a mysterious planet called Solaris. The main character is Chris Kelvin (Clooney), a psychiatrist who lives on Earth in an unidentified city, where he meets a striking woman named Rheya (McElhone). In response to a plea from an old friend, Kelvin travels to the space station, where he finds himself caught up in the events surrounding mankind's first contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial life-form.
I think "Solaris" is pretty hard to follow at first viewing. That's partly because some of the ideas are a little mind-boggling, but also because the story isn’t told in chronological order. I expect that people who like the film will want to gain a deeper understanding by watching it several times on DVD. After you’ve seen the movie a time or two, you might be interested in reading my explanation of "Solaris," which I’m sure not everyone will agree with.
I think one of the best things about "Solaris" is its otherworldly feeling. The movie proceeds rather slowly, there's not a lot of dialogue, and the story is told primarily via visual means. For me, George Clooney imbues his character with just the right amount of sadness, and Natascha McElhone is fine as an enigmatic, beautiful woman who is emotionally unstable. It seems to me the pleasures of the film are mostly cerebral, and I fear those wanting a highly emotional experience may be disappointed. But for viewers who like intellectual movies, I highly recommend "Solaris."
Selected Special Features on the DVD:
- Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1)
- English 5.
- Commentary by Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron
- HBO Special: Inside Solaris
- Solaris: Behind the Planet
- Theatrical Teaser and Trailer