The director Steven Soderbergh has a flair for bridging indie and old-school Hollywood storytelling—for infusing tired-blooded genres with a live-wire syntax of his own. Even his new James Cameron-produced sci-fi picture Solaris (20th Century Fox) has a handmade quality, as if it leapt fully formed from a single artistic consciousness instead of from hundreds of techies on hundreds of computers. The second adaptation of a 1961 novel by the prolific Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, the movie is wondrously strange. Some sequences have the formal distance of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 (1968) while others display the feverish intimacy of an Ingmar Bergman angst-fest. It holds together, though. Solaris is essentially a solemn, splintered meditation on lost love: a movie about personal space, in space.
The protagonist is a psychologist named Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) who, sometime in the future, voyages to a station orbiting a distant, purplish planet (Solaris) in response to a desperate summons from a researcher and old friend, Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur). The therapist is no fount of well-being himself. Before the transmission from Gibarian arrives (along with word that a rescue party sent for the scientist and his shipmates was never heard from again), we've seen him ride the train to work in a glassy-eyed stupor, as if he's already marooned on an alien planet. Kelvin accepts the mission to Solaris the way Willard in Apocalypse Now (1979) accepts the job of going upriver to find Kurtz: for his sins. And when he reaches the near-deserted station, he comes face to face with the wellspring of his torment: the wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), whose fate still haunts him.
What is this new Rheya, exactly? A vision? A ghost? Is she matter or mind? And what are the other beings who scuttle around the bloodstained corridors, among them Gibarian's little son? Answers aren't forthcoming from the two other scientists on board, the etherized, cryptic Snow (Jeremy Davies)—"I could tell you what's happening but I don't know if that would tell you what's happening"—or the reclusive, paranoid Gordon (Viola Davis). Even the entities themselves profess little idea how they got to this place. They obviously emanate from the living oceans of Solaris, which seem to be reaching out to the people on the orbiting station with eellike tendrils of vapor. But does the planet have designs on them, for good or ill? Or is it just trying blindly to fill a sort of spiritual vacuum?
Since the novel's publication (oddly, the English version, from 1970, was translated from the French, not the Polish), the themes and devices of Solaris have turned up in countless sci-fi scenarios, from sundry Star Trek plots to Michael Crichton's novel Sphere (made in 1998 into an inert Barry Levinson picture) to its first cinematic adaptation, in 1972, by the Russian Andrei Tarkovsky. The latter divides critics and divided me, too: I found its first half transfixing, but its last half-hour was the only time I've ever yelled, "End! End!" at a movie screen.
Reportedly, Soderbergh's first cut prompted the same sort of responses in test audiences, and the director was pressured to cut half an hour—to trim longueurs and an explicit sex scene and to add a bit more solace to the finale. Twentieth Century Fox might still have a humongous money-loser on its hands: Some of my colleagues—even those with a high tolerance for moodily protracted tracking shots—regard Soderbergh's Solaris as cinematic Valium. But I got on the movie's wavelength and stayed there. To me, it's like listening to a harrowing, minor-key piece of chamber music—a threnody for the dead set against a planet that's like an abstract painting of woe.
You get a sense—even in this chewy Polish-to-French-to-English translation—of what Soderbergh took from Lem's descriptions of Solaris' surface, of the palpable yearning under the movement of the planet's mists:
On the fifteenth day … I woke up earlier than usual, exhausted by the previous night's dreams. All my limbs were numbed, as if from the effects of a powerful narcotic. The first rays of the red sun shone through the window, a blanket of red flame rippled over the ocean, and I realized that the vast expanse which had not been disturbed by the slightest movement in the past four days was beginning to stir. The dark ocean was abruptly covered by a thin veil of mist which seemed at the same time to have a very palpable consistency. Here and there the mist shook, and tremors spread out to the horizon in all directions. Now the ocean disappeared altogether beneath thick, corrugated membranes with pink swellings and pearly depressions, and these strange waves suspended above the ocean swirled suddenly and coalesced into great balls of blue-green foam. A tempest of wind hurled them upwards to the height of the Station, and wherever I looked, immense membranous wings were soaring in the red sky … as if the ocean were mutating, or shedding an old scaly skin. … Wings of foam planed all around me, only a few yards from the window, and one swooped to rub against the window pane like a silken scarf. As the ocean went on giving birth to these fantastic birds, the first flights were already dissipating high above, decomposing at their zenith into transparent filaments.
The movie's images of Solaris—designed by the Rhythm & Hues Studios—aren't quite that detailed, but they have the same plaintive vibe; they seem to well up out of the characters' mourning. Soderbergh has once more photographed a film under the name "Peter Andrews." After this summer's Full Frontal, which looked defiantly rotten, I thought that the best thing that could happen to him as a director would be for "Peter Andrews" to fall off a bridge. But it's hard to imagine Solaris working as well with another cinematographer. At times you can feel the director's need to pick up the camera and move in close. He's inside these scenes with his actors, who must trust him the way they would a primal therapist.
In his years on television, Clooney cultivated a self-sufficiency that made him madly attractive but limited his range. Soderbergh knows what he needs: to have that smirk wiped off his face, that TV glibness shocked out of him. Even if Clooney doesn't have the plasticity or the histrionic resources of a major actor, there's something eloquent here in his inexpressiveness, in the absence of the ready reponse, the knowing twinkle. He doesn't go catatonic, the way Mel Gibson did in parts of Signs; the oceans are alive beneath the thick clouds. Matching him with Natascha McElhone was a glorious idea. He's dark Irish and impudently mortal; she's of the fair, rare, chiseled variety; but they're both in the same Hibernian key. Her face, with its sharp planes, is angular and rather mysterious. Even when Soderbergh flashes back to their first meeting—when she is unambiguously alive—there is something vital hidden away, from herself as well as her suitor. So their gropings onboard the ship become an extension of their earthly relationship: She was a phantom before she was a phantom.
There isn't a lot of extraneous dialogue in Solaris—the vacuum of space sucks the small talk out of the air—and most of the movie is Clooney staring into space. For real. Viola Davis has one or two vivid scenes and brings a cold rage to her scientific investigations: It's a point of pride that she not be outwitted by this phenomenon. (Davis was the loyal housekeeper in Far From Heaven, although you'd never guess that from her demeanor here.) But I can't make up my mind about Jeremy Davies' distracted, computer-nerd version of Dennis Hopper's counterculture acid-head in Apocalypse Now: He just looked like an actor to me. There are other dissonances. In flashback, the fate of the real Rheya turns on a decision that doesn't get the dramatic weight it deserves. And the timeline in the movie's last 10 minutes is confusing, as if Soderbergh simply recycled early footage: Is it fantasy, flashback, or flash-forward? Or does Soderbergh think there's no difference?
He might not, and that's mostly a good thing. He shoots fluid sequences, but he's not afraid to nip and tuck them, to find a flashback or a flash-forward that can rupture an instant and thereby give it infinite resonance. In that way, Solaris is a kind of sequel to Soderbergh's great The Limey (1999), with its pretzeled syntax, its endless looping back to the moment in which a loved one's future death could be ordained. Kelvin relives the same kinds of moments, except that Soderbergh in Solaris can bring the past literally to life: a past that can't be buried or cast off, that is destined to rise and rise again like the curly wisps of vapor from the oceans of Solaris.