Space Odysseys

The unique trajectory of Steven Soderbergh's career takes him close to the stratosphere with his wholly unexpected and unexpectedly fine remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris, itself adapted from a first-rate novel of philosophical sci-fi by Stanislaw Lem.

For the past dozen years, Soderbergh has alternated between slick, impersonal, sometimes accomplished genre flicks and pretentious, scruffy, usually unsuccessful narrative experiments. The Limey came nearest to reconciling these seemingly antithetical modes, but Solaris achieves an almost perfect balance of poetry and pulp. This is as elegant, moody, intelligent, sensuous, and sustained a studio movie as we are likely to see this season—and in its intrinsic nuttiness, perhaps the least compromised. Tarkovsky's Solaris (just out on DVD) was the Russian visionary's most pop movie; the remake, which draws on both Lem and Tarkovsky, is Soderbergh's most avant.

The action is mainly set in the space station Prometheus as it orbits the planet Solaris. While earthling scientists study this enigmatic world, entirely covered by a great, roiling, apparently sentient ocean, the planet appears to probe them—most spectacularly by materializing their traumatic memories and repressed fantasies. The breakdowns and bizarre hallucinations thus precipitated have thrown the Solaris program into understandable disarray, and following a mysterious video transmission, astro-psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is dispatched to the delusion-ridden space station to investigate.

Zero Kelvin: Mcelhone and Clooney in Solaris
photo: Twentieth Century Fox
Zero Kelvin: Mcelhone and Clooney in Solaris

Details

Solaris
Written and directed by Steven Soderbergh, from the novel by Stanislaw Lem
Twentieth Century Fox
Opens November 27

Russian Ark
Directed by Alexander Sokurov
Written by Sokurov and Anatoly Nikiforov
Wellspring
Opens December 13

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A brooding series of vignettes introduce Kelvin's life on Earth before he's blasted into space—a few scenes re-creating images from 2001. Derelict in Tarkovsky's version, the eerily underpopulated Prometheus is here as gimmicked-up and spiffy as a new pair of $200 sneakers, and just as hot to trot. Kelvin discovers that one member of the crew has recently committed suicide, while the mission commander, Gordon (Viola Davis), has barricaded herself in her room and a skinny stoner type named Snow (Jeremy Davies), working his chewing gum as he gibbers and gesticulates, appears to have lost his mind: "I can tell you what's happening, but I don't know that that would tell you what's happening."

Any reviewer could say the same. As elliptical as Solaris is, it's much easier to follow if you've seen the Tarkovsky film or read Lem's novel—and I imagine that it might be utterly inexplicable without any prior knowledge of the material. But lack of comprehension would not vitiate the poetic charge of the mysterious hand that slinks on-screen to caress the sleeping Kelvin. Waking with a start from a dream of his years-dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), the psychologist discovers that this formidable yet skittish creature is now lying beside him. She is what the crew of the Prometheus calls a "visitor."

Over an hour shorter than Tarkovsky's Solaris, Soderbergh's is more lyrical than epic. The fragmentary assemblage of Kelvin's memories—his initial meeting of Rheya, their life together on Earth, and her suicide—suggests Alain Resnais's underrated, seldom screened, and no less bravely absurd time-travel fantasy Je T'Aime, Je T'Aime. In distilling the action and emphasizing the flashbacks, Soderbergh regrounds his story in genre—although not necessarily sci-fi. (The very subtle futurism is predicated largely on newfangled TV screens and the sense that Earth's climate has become seriously deranged.) The movie is a romance, lovingly shot by the director himself (under a pseudonym), so that warm flesh tones glow in a bluish void. Cutting aside, the action is largely metaphysical. As a shrink, Kelvin naturally believes that "the whole idea of God was dreamed up by man."

Scarcely a drawback, Clooney gives the project a certain material credibility. McElhone matches his cartoonish, big-jawed profile with her muscular cheekbones and huge Bette Davis eyes. Their status as comic book creatures is further accentuated by frequent cutaways to the giant purple and blue lava lamp that is Solaris. Have movies ever offered a more majestic metaphor for the unconscious than this oceanic planet? The visiting Rheya is not only Kelvin's projection but also a symptom of the guilt he bears for his wife's suicide. The kick, not sufficiently emphasized by Soderbergh, is that he realizes this. Dr. Kelvin falls in love with his visitor even as she becomes aware of her falseness: "I'm not the person I remember." Why, she wonders, did Solaris create her? (Soderbergh has changed some of the rules regarding visitors and their hosts—although he does seem consistent on his own terms.)

Kelvin remembers Rheya's first words to him as "Don't blow it." Does the filmmaker? Lem's Solaris is unknowable; his novel satirizes anthropocentrism and the limitations of human thought. Tarkovsky transformed the book into a love story—not unlike the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, or Vertigo—albeit one deriving its pathos from the impossible reconciliation ultimately facilitated by Solaris. Soderbergh's emotionally cataclysmic finale goes beyond Tarkovsky in its ambiguity (as well as its dynamic montage). The space station could be falling into Solaris. Dr. Kelvin is able to split back to Earth—or not. Time doubles back on itself yet seems to stand still. The apocalyptic Dylan Thomas poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," which Kelvin quoted to the original Rheya and she re-quoted in her suicide note, is literalized—perhaps so that the movie's denouement might be mistaken for a happy ending.

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