There are spaceships, but we hardly ever see them in flight. There are no villains, scarcely even any heroes. The few love scenes are haunted by guilt and loss. There are no narrative beats — they’re closer to gentle taps — and it ends with … well, how the hell does it end? Let there be no doubt: Solaris is far and away the most unusual movie to get a wide release in this country since Eyes Wide Shut. (In both, the virile male lead both flees and pursues female phantasms of regret and betrayal.) In adapting Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 science-fiction novel, writer-director Steven Soderbergh has taken a page, if not the length, from Andrei Tarkovsky’s celebrated 1972 take on the same story. The proceedings are hushed, intimate, a slow recoil from the pain of the past and future. Like Tarkovsky, and Kubrick before him, Soderbergh has made a philosophical art movie in a sci-fi costume.
In most of his films, George Clooney has been your masculine pal: the guy who helps you fix your car for the price of a few beers, then amiably whups your ass at basketball. There’s none of that in his performance as the morose, distant Chris Kelvin, a psychiatrist recruited to fly out to a space station orbiting the remote planet Solaris. Strange things have happened to previous visitors to Solaris, a purplish wad of shifting matter that may or may not be sentient. Kelvin arrives at the station and finds two corpses and two living specimens: Snow (Jeremy Davies, looking like Michael O’Donoghue channeling Crispin Glover), who seems to have lost his marbles, and Gordon (the intense Viola Davis), who is skittish about everything and won’t let Kelvin into her room. She, like Snow, has a regular “visitor.”
Kelvin soon gets one too: his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), who killed herself a while back. Kelvin’s response to seeing his beloved alive again is not joy but horror: he locks her in a shuttle and shoots her out into space. Soon enough, she’s back again, with no memory of what Kelvin just did to “her,” but also not as needy as her previous incarnation. The mysterious life on Solaris — or perhaps the planet itself (have fun guessing) — seems to be reconstructing Rheya from Kelvin’s memories, dreams, and yearnings. She is whatever he remembers, and nothing more. She may not be a human being, but she aches like one. She is essentially Kelvin torturing himself. He can no more not think of her than you can not think of a pink elephant; she keeps coming back, and eventually he stops resisting.
This Solaris lacks the ponderousness — and, some will say, the oblique poetry — of the Tarkovsky original. Yet each has its unique charms, and Soderbergh was right to give us a smiling, witty Natascha McElhone in flashback on Earth, to contrast with the whatever-the-hell-she-is Natascha McElhone we see near Solaris. (McElhone, like Natalya Bondarchuk before her, is hindered somewhat by the film’s only-through-male-eyes construction of her character — part of the story’s point about how man wrongly bends reality to his own perception — but manages to triumph over it by sheer stubborn femaleness: these women may be boxed into male memories, but they wreak havoc there.) Soderbergh cuts to the bone of the story: What would we do if confronted with an alien consciousness that parodied our own need to have the universe mirror our expectations of it?
I’ll happily watch both versions of Solaris many times during the rest of my life; the basic story is so unbreakable that neither Tarkovsky (whose leisurely approach to the material did not please Stanislaw Lem) nor Soderbergh can dent it, though Tarkovsky tried to expand it till it popped, and Soderbergh tries to freeze-dry it down to a doomed love affair. The ingenious premise, tackled thirty years apart by two very different artists, still harasses our minds with more questions than it’s prepared to answer; it locks us in a shuttle and shoots us into inner space, alone with our hopes and fears. Soderbergh’s Solaris is gorgeously designed (he does quadruple duty this time, handling the editing and photography too — how auteur can you get?), the most mystifyingly beautiful film multiplex patrons will stumble across this year.
Soderbergh hasn’t had the gall to remake Tarkovsky — he’s made his own version of the book, and what took so long for someone else to do it? Personally, I’d pay to see Scorsese’s Solaris, Coppola’s Solaris, David Lynch’s Solaris; every few years a different director should take a shot at it, so we can see the story through their eyes, what they choose to accentuate or discard, perfectly in keeping with the story’s own concerns. I draw the line, however, at Michael Bay’s Solaris; though, who knows, with this director-proof material even he might shine.