Strangely, with Solaris, writer/director/cinematographer/editor Steven Soderbergh has created a quiet, thoughtful science fiction film which eschews explosions in favor of ideas and emotions. What makes this so strange is that, in 1977, George Lucas ruined the science fiction film genre, seemingly forever.
Instead of the odd, challenging, idea-oriented and politically incorrect films that had found refuge in the b-movie slums where the earth's motion could be halted for up to a day and planets were occasionally forbidden, Lucas produced one of the dumbest westerns ever made. That would have been fine, as the western has always been the dumb genre (no offense, John Ford!) but Lucas had the gall to set his shoot-'em-up in outer space. Since his little movie (I think it was called Space Wars or Star Battles or something) wound up making just under $60 trillion, it had the horrible effect of not only ruining the science fiction genre, but also of ruining cinema in general. In fact, that film can be cited as the reason that the United States ceased being the artistic center of the cinematic universe.
Sure, people made a couple of interesting sci-fi movies after that, and a few American directors took an occasional stab at re-capturing the artistry that had been so prevalent in the 1970s, but essentially the "event movie" had taken over, and from then on science fiction would be spelled with an enormous, exploding dollar sign.
Nonetheless, there are directors who continue to strive for quality, rather than quantity, and cinema continues to exist. One of the most baffling of the current crop of filmmakers is Steven Soderbergh, who essentially has no cinematic personality: You could watch all of his films in a row and never know they were made by the same man.
This lack of self is made up for by the fact that Soderbergh can do a perfect imitation of someone else, and for Solaris he chose to do Kubrick. In fact, if Kubrick had ever made a film about feelings, I'm sure it would have been Soderbergh's Solaris.
Which isn't to say that Soderbergh falls into the Spielberg trap of taking Kubrickian material and ladling on the emotions with cement trowel in order to produce a special-feelings hug-fest. Luckily, Soderbergh could never be as insipid as Spielberg (which makes me wonder why, oh why, didn't they get Soderbergh to direct A.I.?)
Instead, Soderbergh takes from Kubrick the sense of quiet and space, and the combination of slowly moving camera and almost static characters that made Kubrick's films so artistically successful.
Though set in an unimaginable future where the pope is a woman, Solaris is largely a story about memory. Chris Kelvin, a psychologist, is haunted by guilt over his wife's suicide. When Kelvin is called to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, he finds that the planet seems to be alive, and it expresses itself by making human beings based on the memories of those near it.
Thus, Kelvin wakes up to find that his wife is beside him, perfectly whole. In beautifully filmed, nearly silent sequences that never succumb to the contemporary mode of using music to signal mood, Soderbergh shows what happens when a memory will not go away.
Kelvin is played by George Clooney, who is shockingly not awful and annoying in this film. In fact, and I'm almost loathe to say it after the way he's hammed up his previous performances, Clooney is good. Real good, like the way Jesus was good.
He's backed up by an almost perfect cast. Jeremy Davies goes a little overboard as the creepy engineer who seems disturbingly undisturbed by the weirdness on Solaris, but Viola Davis is spot-on as a physicist who wants to destroy the creatures that Solaris is sending to the humans.
And Natascha McElhone does an otherworldly performance as Kelvin's dead wife Rheya. McElhone is really interesting to watch here, as she has to play a person whose only memories of herself are actually someone else's memories of her. She figures out a way to convey this in motion and expression that is almost entirely convincing. It's so good, in fact, that in the few moments when she breaks character the entire film seems to fall apart.
Mostly, though, the film hangs together perfectly. It's not just the acting, it's the entire mood that Soderbergh creates. And we can really put all the blame or credit on Soderbergh, since he takes on virtually every major task in the film, including, in violation of union rules, the cinematography. (If you watch the credits you'll see the cinematographer listed as "Peter Andrews" in order to get around this.)
It's one of the most artistically cohesive projects of the year and well worth seeing if your idea of science fiction isn't hopelessly married to laser blasts and Death Stars. There is no Death Star here. There's a sort of Hurt Feelings Star, but no Death Star.
Sadly, Solaris will not do well at the box office. Even the president of Fox, which is distributing Solaris, said it was "a little too thought provoking," a phrase I thought really summed up contemporary America. Because, you know, you don't want to get the folk all riled up with thinking. T'aint good business.
Well, if you want to see how mood can be created with silence instead of violins, and how under-acting can be more affecting than overacting, and how lack of action can be more tense than a running gun battle, then check out Solaris. But if you don't want to get all thinky with the thoughts in yer head making bad mojo, then best stay home and check out that E.T. Meets Darth Maul holiday special. That'll be real, real nice.