- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2002

"Solaris" is a misbegotten Hollywood remake of an esoteric and mystically inclined Soviet movie. The prototype, released 30 years ago, was directed by the late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, whose brooding and contemplative tendencies far surpass those of director Steven Soderbergh in terms of both gravitas and endurance.
Moreover, Mr. Soderbergh reduces the original "Solaris" (it will be revived Friday evening on the Turner Classic Movies channel) by about 70 minutes and places his trust in sidekick George Clooney as a reliable draw for popular audiences, who are likely to find the picture static and unrewarding.
This problematic digest of a futuristic parable withholds conventional gratification in a science-fiction format no chases, no pitched battles, no aliens, no showdowns between good and evil while speculating on the prospect of reincarnation and undying, redemptive love under the influence of the mysterious planet Solaris, dense with spirals and halations that evidently can cloud the minds of mere humans.
The ostensible protagonist is Mr. Clooney as a psychologist named Chris Kelvin, embarked on an emergency voyage to the space station Prometheus, which orbits the mind-bending Solaris. However, it proves much easier to sympathize with the intense Viola Davis as Gordon, a surviving crew member who seems determined to resist dementia, Solaris-style.
Arriving at Prometheus, Kelvin enters gleaming, silvery-blue interiors spattered here and there by bloodstains. Dread seems to replace the first question that pops into your head: Which way to the lobby?
Two body bags contain the remains of crew members. The only survivors appear to be Gordon, barricaded behind a door at the outset, and Snow, obviously not to be trusted because he's played by Jeremy Davies at his spaciest. Kelvin also catches glimpses of an elusive child. Soon he is confronted by a replica of his late wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), whose suicide is documented eventually in flashbacks that clarify very little about their courtship and ill-fated marriage.
The dubious reunion preoccupies the filmmakers. Kelvin's dreams of Rheya call up vivid phantoms in a Solarian orbit; the hero must decide whether he wants to reject these reincarnations or embrace them as a supernatural deliverance promising eternal union with the lost and beloved.
Miss McElhone's finely sculptured nose and jawline and her prominent cheekbones give Rheya an undeniable photogenic glamour, but Rheya's lovability as a person and spouse is not established during the flashback inserts. For example, the suicide appears to have grown out of an abortion that came as both a shock and betrayal to her husband. It always seems an expedient sucker punch.
Because Mr. Clooney and Miss McElhone play a couple of love scenes in the nude she playfully grips his buttocks during one long shot there's a strong temptation to take the entire romance as a lark and discount the ensuing domestic tragedy that supposedly haunts poor Kelvin. Mr. Clooney also possesses such an agreeable here-and-now personality that one is reluctant to watch him in an obsessive bind, sleepwalking toward delusionary contentment. Moreover, he's sleepwalking in a setting that comes to resemble a state of mind more than a working outpost of space exploration.
"Solaris" grows monotonous within a matter of minutes and remains in a superficial fog, both dramatically and metaphorically. The filmmakers borrow a famous poem, Dylan Thomas' "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," to authenticate their theme. It's not as if the message is difficult to grasp. On the contrary, it's rather too simple, given the misleading superstructure of an exotic outer-space setting and characters forced to agonize over imponderables.
PG-13 (Fleeting graphic violence, nudity and sexual candor; sustained ominous atmosphere)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Produced by James Cameron, Rae Sanchini and Jon Landau. Screenplay by Mr. Soderbergh, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem.
95 minutes

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