|Written by Paul Lingas|
|Tuesday, 29 July 2003|
This is the type of science fiction that Ray Bradbury wrote, where the sins of our generation are played out in the future. The point of the future setting and its technology is either to show how we’ve lost touch with our humanity or to show how nothing about technology can change basic human nature. Based loosely on the book by Stanislaw Lem and the Russian film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, “Solaris” is a collaboration between Academy Award winners Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron. It tells the tale of Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), who is asked to go to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, where a friend of his (Ulrich Tukur) informs him that strange occurrences have the crew spooked. A psychologist by trade, it seems the perfect task for Kelvin, who is alone and clearly depressed on Earth.
When Kelvin arrives at Solaris, he encounters the remaining crew of Snow (Jeremy Davies), and Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis), both of whom seem unnerved, to say the least. Snow is manic and Gordon refuses to have contact with anyone. Kelvin is forced to try to understand what happened by himself, as the only thing Snow offers the observation that an explanation won’t help until it happens to Kelvin. If that sounds somewhat difficult to understand, then you’ve gotten the point.
Later, Kelvin’s dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) joins him in his room, an event that of course startles him. Refusing to believe that she is there, he puts her into an escape pod and jettisons her out into space. However, she somehow comes back the next evening. Sharing his experience with Snow, Kelvin finds out that each crew member has had a “visitor” based on their past. Kelvin, haunted by his wife’s own suicide and feeling this is a chance to atone for earlier mistakes, suggests that they return to Earth, with the reformed Rheya. Gordon balks and proposes the destruction of the “visitors.” Kelvin refuses to allow this and must ultimately decide what he is going to do with himself, the other crew members, and his “visitor.”
At its heart “Solaris” is a story about love, loss, and our own understanding of what our existence entails, and just how much that definition relies on those around us. This film will not blow you out of your seat, but it might cause you to think and feel a great deal if you appreciate the style. Soderbergh and Cameron both describe the style as minimalist, which is true in both pacing and overall design. The pacing is great the first time through, but it can wear on you after the first viewing, unless you can look at the film anew and enjoy the bizarre purposefulness that allows the viewer to become unnerved, just as the characters do. At times, “Soalris” relies a bit too much on its style and it can lose some of its impact if your attention begins to wander. Many pundits have felt that this film betrays both the book and the Tarkovsky film, but Soderbergh insisted they were only templates for his own adaptation, and that the new “Solaris” is not so much a remake as an alternate version.
The performances here are all solid, especially from the radiant McElhone. Clooney does a fine job, but at times seems somewhat out of his element. Davis and Davies both provide excellent support. The score by Cliff Martinez is very good, as is the overall sound design, both in their minimalist ways. The production design and effects work are excellent, and though done in a somewhat Kubrickian style, they both serve to tell the story and are carefully constructed.
This is a nicely put-together DVD, if somewhat simplistic, with a crisp transfer of both picture and sound, as are many recently released films that move to DVD. The sound is limited to Dolby Digital, but the lack of a dramatic or intense soundtrack (no explosions or chase sequences and a small dynamic range) justifies the adequacy of Dolby Digital 5.1. Due to Soderbergh’s penchant for shallow depth of field, the clarity of DVD shows some of the brief lapses in focus, though this is a fairly static film, so it doesn’t occur as much as it does in say, “Out of Sight.” This might bother some people, but it is part of the style that is revealed by the clarity of the transfer. The audio commentary from two of today’s most influential filmmakers, Soderbergh and Cameron, is interesting, intelligent and insightful. They talk about creative decisions, on set anecdotes, effects work, and other matters without descending into goofy nonsense or stroking each others ego’s too much, as happens occasionally on audio commentary. The two featurettes are ordinary, one produced by HBO and the other an independent effort. These contain some brief interviews and some nice behind the scenes footage, but neither have anything particularly revolutionary to show or say.
Overall, this is a solid and interesting effort from Soderbergh. The film’s style does not lend itself to a DVD with a ton of extras, but it is presented nicely and would be a fine addition to anyone’s library for those occasions when a challenge is welcome.