With Solaris, George Clooney has at last fully erased from my mind the seemingly intractable memory of his franchise ending performance in Batman. Unfortunately, Solaris isn't a story for everyone and maybe it isn't a story at all.
Originally a Russian film released back in the early 70's, Solaris now stars uber-hunk George Clooney as psychologist Chris Kelvin, sent to investigate an errant space station. Once there, he discovers that those of the crew not dead are disturbed and depressive, locked away in their rooms with mysterious "visitors". Soon things get even stranger, as Kelvin gets a visitor of his own in the form of his long dead wife.
I'd like to tell you Solaris eventually sorts things out, but it doesn't. Instead the film floats around as if in a perpetual dream, drifting from scene to scene often without connection or reason. It's been said that the original Solaris was the Russian answer to 2001. I haven't seen the original, but this version is more what 2001 would be like if Kubrick's surreal and oft-confusing ending were expanded into an entire film. There's never really a clear narrative, nor any attempt at real explanation. Doubtless most viewers will walk out frustrated and annoyed by director/writer Steven Soderbergh's confusing, yet somehow heartfelt vision.
The thing is, Solaris isn't so much a story as it is a series of emotional impressions put together into a loose bag of scenes. On it's own, each of these scenes is quite powerful, carried strongly by an AMAZING performance by Clooney and a complete cast of brilliant actors. We identify with and get into, understand and sympathize with all of them... even though we have no clear idea what's going on. Is that the point?
Solaris is a movie about what you would do if you could go back and change it. It is whatever it is that you regret, or that you're missing, or that you once loved. Somewhere out there, whether through chance or intention you find it, even though it makes no sense. What do you do? Solaris touches on feelings of longing, regret, romance, and love that we all have bottled up inside of us and sucks them right to the surface without even warning us that it's going in after them.
Science Fiction and surrealist movies in general often deal with a lot of crazy themes. But Solaris, though it isn't the most narratively sound, really captures the confusion and pain of really for goddawful real dealing with those kinds of crazy messed up things that so often get brought up in more ambitious Science Fiction movies.
In that reality of loss and love, Clooney simply owns this movie. He's everyman, he's you, he's me, he's so real you forget he's just some dumb movie star pretending to be a real boy. He's struggling to deal but he can't. At first he clings to what he knows as reality, rejecting quite literally the impossibilities brought before him, doing something which might shock you… as it does him. Clooney isn't charming or cool here. He's vulnerable and hurt almost the point of no control. Forget the hype about his ass, yes it's there, but really it doesn't matter. The real problem is that the creation before him, the second chance he's confronted with KNOWS that it's a creation, a second chance, and maybe not even real. She herself must deal with questioning her own existence, and whether she has a right to exist.
To find all this emotional complexity, Soderbergh ignores the traditional trappings of space and future technology. The ships, the stars, none of that matters. He simply focuses on the people inside the ships and the emotions tumbling within them. For that he brings to bear a visually impressive array of shadow and stark interior beauty crafted simply to highlight the things these people are touching, not to impress us with some technical sci-fi, exploration oriented wizardry. Sure, the movie is set in space, but to Soderbergh that doesn't necessarily mean the "things" of that world have to intrude on the people trapped within them.
In that detail and weave of heart wrenching stuff, there really isn't much tangibility to this film. On one hand Solaris is a powerful thought provoking experience, one that's made me personally question my own choices in life. A movie that pulls to the surface all the juicy little feelings we all go through so much trouble to hide. A film about romance and regret so poignant that it drives almost purely on emotional response. On the other it's slow and maybe a little boring, a film where nothing really happens and nothing is ever really said. A movie where story is almost an afterthought amidst a swirl of colors and inexplicable events.
Without a doubt, this is a film that's going to polarize people in one direction or the other… unless like me you end up planted firmly on the fence. Maybe that's where I should be. Solaris is an emotionally brilliant movie without any physicality to give it the kind of grounding it needs for definitive appeal. People are going to love and hate this thing with more venom than you've ever seen. Choose.