Director Steven Soderbergh and star George Clooney’s new existential space odyssey “Solaris” is the polar opposite of the duo’s 2001 collaboration “Ocean’s Eleven.” While that flick featured fast pacing, light playfulness, and the candy-coated glare of the Vegas strip, this endeavor utilizes calm meditation, heavy confrontation, and the sterile, metallic gloom of a secluded space station.
In short, “Ocean’s Eleven” was the movie equivalent of a wild night on the town, and “Solaris” is these party animals’ effort to prove they can buckle down and study. Not that there is anything wrong with separating entertainment from art. Both are noble takes on what the film experience is meant to be. Movies can be good fun, but they can also force you to think, to expand your assumptions about the human condition.
However, in an attempt by both men to reassert their artistic credibility, “Solaris” moves too far past the line of “serious filmmaking” and enters the realm of “inaccessible theorizing.” It desperately wants to be deep, profound and classic, a layered masterpiece that students will dissect and experts will debate. But even with moments of visual bravado and exemplary directorial maneuvering, “Solaris” asks difficult questions about mortality, love and God, only to wrap its answers in so many layers of “art” that they lose their impact, leaving the audience cold and uninvolved.
“Solaris” is based on the classic 1973 Russian film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, which was in turn adapted from a book by Stanislaw Lem. This sharp turn by Soderbergh to opaque Soviet cinema is the first indication that he craves the awe and respect of the film theory community. His version begins some time in the future on a very rainy, depressing planet Earth. It opens on a withdrawn and tortured psychiatrist named Chris Kelvin, played with icy stoicism by Clooney. Chris’s painful past relationship with his beautiful dead wife Raya (Natascha McElhone) haunts his every move — he cannot escape the image of her seductive stare and her graceful glide.
When he receives a strange video message from a close friend requesting assistance aboard a distant space station, Chris must momentarily abandon his brooding existence to come to the rescue of his old friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur). Gibarian is living in space to observe and study a bright, mysterious “ocean world” called Solaris, and he informs Chris that strange things have happened to his crew. When he arrives at the space station, Chris discovers that his friend and most of the crew are dead — just the beginning of a long line of unexplained plot points. The only two survivors are slowly losing their sanity.
There is a strange presence on board, the survivors mutter, and Chris soon encounters this supernatural entity in the form of his dead wife. He is immediately plunged back into the tragic love affair that consumes him, forced to confront his past mistakes, feelings, and memories.
Soderbergh tells this ghostly love story with moments of magnetic, lyrical fascination. The film’s early juxtaposition of the lovers’ creepy inhuman passion with their past human flirtations forces the viewer to contemplate how and where memory and reality intersect. Clooney and McElhone develop a burning onscreen heat that allows their love to cross all living limitations.
But this initial spell is soon broken. The movie’s stilted pacing loses its hypnotic, seductive edge. It becomes a cautious slow dance too tedious to bear. The plodding musical score, void of any shifts in inflection or hints of swelling epic grandeur, adds to the exhausting malaise that overcomes any visual awe.
The movie suffers mostly from a case of overambition. “Solaris” asks so many deep questions that it quickly sinks into the mucky confusion of its own complexity. Do we get a second chance at love? Is there a higher power that answers the desires of our subconscious? Even more broadly, is there a God at all? It is a love story weighted by heavy existential issues. This would be acceptable if the resolution offered some semblance of a tangible response. The climax is awkwardly sudden and simple, a vague cop-out that leaves too many loose ends dangling in space.
But art films like “Solaris” need not be entirely conclusive in the way that popcorn entertainments like “Ocean’s Eleven” normally are. “Solaris,” however, is too unfocused and broad–it offers food for thought without any water to wash it down. Soderbergh’s use of Solaris to weave his film together demonstrates this problem. At key revelations and developments in the story, he cuts to the magnificent pinks, red, and purples of the floating gas as if such brief glimpses are enough to convey Solaris’ thematic connection to the plot. The movie is too much like the planet from which it takes its name: beautiful, mesmerizing, but in the end, difficult to grasp.