on November 27, 2002 by Wade Major
Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel "Solaris" was always peculiar source material for a film--a book so consumed with ideas that it should, by all accounts, defy screen treatment. And yet it has now been filmed not once but twice--first in 1972 by maverick Russian filmmaker Andre Tarkovksy and again in 2002 by maverick American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.

The story of "Solaris" follows psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) on an emergency mission to a space station where efforts to monitor and study the distant planet Solaris have gone disastrously wrong. Contact with the station has ceased and the fate of the few scientists still aboard is unknown. Upon his arrival, Kelvin finds a near-abandoned facility with only two remaining researchers (Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies); a third (Ulrich Tukur) has recently committed suicide. Kelvin soon uncovers the source of the problems--the planet Solaris is, itself, alive, conjuring entities from human dreams and memories which, for all intents and purposes, are perfect clones of the originals. In Kelvin's case it's his deceased wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who suddenly appears with a complete set of memories and affections reconstructed from his own. Initially able to leverage reason against emotion, Kelvin lures the clone into a shuttle pod and launches her into space. But the planet immediately conjures another, and Kelvin begins to crack, embracing the illusion of having been offered a second chance even as he starts to question the very nature of morality and reality, love and happiness.

At just 99 minutes Soderbergh's movie is more than an hour shorter than Tarkovsky's, almost all of it gained by lopping off the mostly earthbound first hour spent examining Kelvin's mental and emotional preparation and revisiting the ordeal of a discredited former Solaris researcher. But Soderbergh, who not only adapted the screenplay but also served pseudonymously as the film's cinematographer and editor, has no interest in commercially-motivated truncation. Where Tarkovsky sought to broadly explore man's existential dilemma in the microcosm of a remote space station, Soderbergh seeks only to better understand one man's individual ordeal with that dilemma, replacing Tarkovsky's protracted introduction with a collection of highly efficient and often intensely moving flashbacks that lay out the entire history of Kelvin's marriage.

Though Soderbergh has attempted to invest the tale with a greater sense of emotion, he has not abandoned the intellectual underpinnings. The new "Solaris," like the old, demands a high degree of cerebral sophistication and participation on the part of the audience in exchange for a payoff that is more provocative than satisfying. Though Soderbergh's telling of the tale is ultimately less profound and far-reaching, it is far more convincing from a purely scientific standpoint. Rock-solid effects, meticulous production design, luminous photography and a heart-rending score from Cliff Martinez create an environment within which Soderbergh and the actors are able to harvest an exceptional level of emotional credibility. This is, admittedly, not the story that Lem necessarily wished to tell--his contempt for the American school of science fiction is well-documented--but it also doesn't entirely extinguish the underlying themes that continue to make the novel such a rarity.

In many ways the Soderbergh picture actually owes more to Tarkovsky, who died in 1986, than Lem--from specific scenes and lines of dialogue to the principal casting of George Clooney and Natascha McElhone, who bear a striking resemblance to their Russian counterparts, Donatas Banionis and Natalya Bondarchuk (daughter of famed "War and Peace" director Sergei Bondarchuk). But Clooney's casting also makes practical sense--a close friend and business associate of Soderbergh, with whom he has worked twice previously, Clooney has developed the uncanny ability to communicate, in a kind of visceral shorthand, emotions and anxieties that cannot typically be understood but between the closest of allies. What words cannot express, what Soderbergh himself scarcely seems to understand, Clooney transforms into genuine, graspable human feeling. It's a stunning exhibition of a kind of acting that has become far too rare on the American screen, at times so potent that it seems to set the tone not only for the other actors, including McElhone and Jeremy Davies, but for the film itself.

Sadly, there is another wholly inadvertent point of commonality between the pictures that speaks unflatteringly of the societies that hatched them. Tarkovsky's "Solaris" was nearly censored by Soviet authorities for including a shot of Kelvin, from behind, wearing nothing but his underwear. Thirty years later, Soderbergh quite nearly encountered the same issue when the MPAA found two discrete shots of Clooney's bare behind sufficient to warrant an R-rating. That rating was, of course, overturned on appeal, just as Tarkovsky eventually prevailed in his fight. But the damage was done--three decades and continent apart, the world's two great space-exploring societies demonstrated a staggering inability to look past their Byzantine prudishness, unwittingly proving the maxim that Lem's novel postulated, namely man's enduring willingness, even eagerness, to confront anything but the honest truth. Starring George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis and Ulrich Tukur. Directed and written by Steven Soderbergh. Produced by James Cameron, Rae Sanchini and Jon Landau. A Fox release. Science Fiction. Rated PG-13 for sexuality/nudity, brief language and thematic elements. Running time: 99 min

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