Resurrection Redux

Soderbergh’s Solaris remakes reflective Russian sci-fi

The marketing campaign for Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is all about the love story. Ad spots show scenes between George Clooney and Natascha McElhone with intimations of an ill-fated marriage given a mysterious second chance. You need a sharp eye to tell that the movie takes place mostly in outer space.

20th Century Fox is wise to downplay the film’s futuristic elements, as audiences expecting a Hollywood space opera may find it a perplexing disappointment. Approach Solaris as a psych 101 exercise instead of a sci-fi vehicle and you’ll appreciate it more, even though Soderbergh never makes use of the film’s most provocative ideas.

Clooney plays psychiatrist Chris Kelvin, whose personality seems frozen over in his early moments, going about his daily routine in emotional isolation. With most scenes shot in close-up and only a few glimpses of the outdoors, the film itself has the perspective of a shut-in with downcast eyes.

Kelvin gets shaken from his mysterious grief by a video message from his friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), a space-faring scientist orbiting an alien world called Solaris. Gibarian enigmatically claims that Kelvin is the only one qualified to bring aid to a surveying mission gone awry.

Kelvin arrives at Gibarian’s space station Prometheus with no one to greet him, and he finds the immaculate mechanical surfaces stained with blood. He learns that Gibarian and all but two of the crew are dead. Snow (Jeremy Davies), a strung-out hacker type, and Gordon (Viola Davis), a hostile paranoid, only offer Kelvin riddles, not explanations, adding fuel to the suspense.

On his first night on the station, Kelvin dreams of his wife Rheya (McElhone), with recollections of their first meeting giving way to sex scenes that take place both in their Earthly apartment and on Prometheus itself. He awakens to find Rheya in bed with him, despite the fact that she died — on Earth — years before. The rest of the crew are being driven mad by similar “visitors,” whose origins defy explanation. Yet it seems that while the humans study the planet Solaris, Solaris is studying them.

Despite having James Cameron as one of its producers, the film has surprisingly few special effects. But Solaris itself makes an intriguing visual subject, a planet covered by a single, pinkish ocean that may be alive, with lightning bolts crossing its surface like firing synapses the size of the Great Wall of China. Symbolically, the space station, with its orderly gray corridors, suggest the rational, conscious mind, in orbit above the roiling subconscious.

Solaris has a lofty pedigree as a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s critically esteemed, snail-paced 1972 Russian film based on a novel by Poland’s Stanislaw Lem. And yet its plot, about loved ones reunited by alien means, is a common gimmick from “Star Trek” and the like. While the film flirts with themes about memory and existence, Soderbergh is mostly interested in the marriage. Flashbacks explore Kelvin and Rheya’s courtship and the tension caused by her mental instability.

Kelvin denies that their marriage is fated to fail a second time, although the film itself can feel overly determined. At their first meeting, he quotes Rheya a line of poetry — “Death shall have no dominion” — that too neatly anticipates the plot points to come. Soderbergh’s script frequently relies on short sentences and questions left hanging in the air, making the technobabble in the last act, with its references to “subatomic particles” and the like, sound almost comically clunky.

Neither Clooney nor McElhone are the ideal players to carry a film that requires such minimal acting. Clooney does well enough portraying grieving stillness and has a fine moment trying to contain his shock as he reasons out Rheya’s miraculous return. Soderbergh makes effective use of McElhone’s dark, penetrating eyes, and she conveys many layers of confusion at her resurrection. But neither actor digs deeply enough into their roles for the audience to truly empathize with them. And given the film’s poker-faced tone, Davies’ hippie delivery feels jarringly mannered.

Soderbergh’s Solaris is an hour shorter than the Russian film, and it offers a new ending that shies away from the story’s more difficult propositions. You’re left wondering what drew the director to remake Solaris if he only wanted to scale down its ambitions. Perhaps Soderbergh is intrigued with heroes who avoid dealing with the death of a loved one, as The Limey has some passing similarities.

In Solaris, Soderbergh seems mostly interested in working in the vocabulary of cerebral science fiction films like 2001, a style that values narrative restraint and a hushed tone in the face of the inexplicable. But as with Full Frontal’s self-conscious venture into digital filmmaking, the director is drawn to cinematic idioms more than compelling stories. It’s like hearing Soderbergh make some impeccable vocal impersonations, even though he doesn’t have much to say.