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Monday, December 2 12:00 AM EST

Movie Review: Solaris

By Enzo Laszlo, Movie Guru


Starring George Clooney
Natascha McElhone
Director Steven Soderbergh
Official Site Link
US Opening 11/27/2002
Rated PG-13
Genre Sci-Fi (?)/Drama
See Movie? Yes, but beware, its a thinker.

Most films nowadays have one purpose in mind: brainless, irresponsible, leave-your-worries-at-the-door fun. Such films flood the market each and every Friday for fifty-two weeks a year. From time to time a variant organism sprouts in this field of mindless entertainment: the oft-dreaded thinking film.  For many, however, the thinking film is a rare and fascinating creation. It is an unexpected challenge, a living maze of thought with the entrances and exits overgrown, its victims still wandering aimlessly within its walls.  Steven Soderbergh's film Solaris is just such a conniving organism.  It is a Kubrickian Venus Flytrap... seducing us with its promise and ensnaring us in our own contemplation.  Its touch and its scent linger in afterthought long after the curtain draws closed and its audience is loosed back into the wild.  For audiences such as myself, the experience is a welcome change.

Solaris is the story of psychotherapist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), still drowning in the aftermath of his wife's death years after the fact.  Called to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, Kelvin discovers only two surviving crew members: a paranoid team leader (Viola Davis) and a jittery, scatterbrained engineer (Jeremy Davies, playing yet another character with psychological issues).  Both warn Kelvin of the phenomena which claimed the other crew members yet the good doctor remains characteristically skeptical... until the morning he wakes up with his late wife (played with a precise balance of invigoration and dislocation by Ronin's Natascha McElhone) sleeping beside him.  What follows in Solaris are forcible moments of introspection, denial, sorrow, and regret... the presentation of questions which cannot be answered, only faced.  Kelvin is forced to face his past, the decisions he made in that past, and the seductive possibilities of carving a new path from ethereal memories made disturbingly whole again.

Despite its cosmic setting and its deeply convincing construction of earth in the future, Solaris is NOT a science-fiction film.  While sci-fi may serve as the ovum for its conception, the film itself lies not in what will be but what has been.  Its is a genre pulled inside out, its innards revealed to be not those of salivating alien creatures but of something deeply and hauntingly human.  Existing on a plane previously occupied by films such as American Beauty and Donnie Darko, that almost unclassifiable genre of introspection, Solaris is in no way representative.  Whereas common films offer a re-envisioning of what exists in our world, these films offer us an untainted mirror then quietly walk away, leaving us to our own constructs.  Anyone watching Solaris looking for answers or signposts pointing this way or that are looking in the wrong place.  The film is often confusing, and the true nature of the planet Solaris could definitely be called into question, as could the film's open ending.  But ultimately this lack of answers and a concrete ending are less of a detriment than they are a defining characteristic. For Solaris to have a solid ending, happy or sad, would be to betray its own nature and offer us something tangible that we should ultimately be discovering for ourselves.

From a filmmaking standpoint, Solaris is yet another construction from an architect at the top of his game.  Adding to his already eclectic repertoire, Steven Soderbergh ventures into yet another territory and claims it as his own.  His deliberately open-ended screenplay sets the support for a finely carved film.  Succeeding brilliantly where Brian DePalma's Mission to Mars failed, Soderbergh's Solaris is by far the closest equivocation of a Stanley Kubrick film to appear thus far.  In many respects it surpasses its predecessor 2001 by keeping itself acutely restrained.  Each shot is masterfully presented like a moving photograph in its framing, color, and most importantly its duration.  Whereas 2001 laughingly allowed insignificant shots to drag ad nauseam, Solaris maintains a careful tempo from shot to shot and reel to reel.  Soderbergh also works from a carefully chosen color palette, each location given a deliberate amount of life or absence thereof.  The muted colors and distinct lack of musical score in many sequences work in tandem to create a profound stillness within the film, a stillness which fertilizes the mind instead of uprooting it in multiple directions of sight and sound (It must be noted as well that Solaris might be one the first films in the history of cinema to accurately show oxidized blood as brown instead of red). Overall, the film creates fertile soil for a voluntary mind to blossom inwards, but for those minds seeking a visceral spoon feeding, their sustenance lies elsewhere.

The question to recommend Solaris requires careful consideration: is the better cinematic experience the roller coaster which carries us on a preset path, snapping us into its experience and allowing us to leap away gleefully at the ride's end?  Or is the hall of mirrors, a maze where every turn shows us another part of ourselves, one we may not have seen before?  I choose the latter.  Roller coasters will always exist, always there for us to visit and experience new twists and turns.  But the rarity of Solaris' cinematic hall of mirrors offer something different, a reflection of ourselves that exists only for one shimmering moment before it changes, as we change, and the experience exists only in memory. It is a rare and challenging voyage, one that anyone looking for just such a voyage should promptly and open-mindedly undertake.

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