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I was quite the Sci-Fi buff in high school. Not to the point of learning Klingon or memorizing the serial number on the Star Wars trash compactor (3263827), but I would rent any video that had anything remotely futuristic or astronomical on i's box. It was this lack of discrimination that led me to one day rent the original Solaris, a film hailed by critics as "Russia's answer to 2001" and hailed by me as "unbelievably boring". No lasers, no acid-blooded aliens, no Carrie Fisher in a bikini -- what's to like?
Now, as an adult, 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie of all time. So I was eager to give the film another chance, especially since this new version was by one of my favorite directors (Steven Soderbergh) and starring one of my favorite actors (George Clooney). And what's the verdict? Solaris is a beautiful film, full of interesting characters, engaging ideas, and philosophical quandaries around every turn. And it's a little boring.
As the film opens, it's unclear when the film is set -- it certainly doesn't look like the far future. But just as the viewer gets comfortable watching Clooney live his early-21st-century life, a couple of guys show up and ask him to go visit a space station. Something screwy is going on up yonder, and Dr. Chris Kelvin, as a profession psychologist, has been chosen to go straighten things out.
So the next thing you know, Clooney is in a space suit, tramping around space station Prometheus, and discovering things to be in complete disarray. One guy has committed suicide, another was killed by security; the remaining crewmen are loopy, paranoid, and unwilling to explain what's going on; there's even a kid running around the ship, a kid who shouldn't be there at all. It becomes immediately clear that whatever is causing the mayhem is as much physical as it is psychological. Worse still, Clooney becomes another victim of the -- whatever -- even before his first day is through.
Solaris is a ponderous film: every event and speech is pregnant with meaning, and Soderbergh gives you plenty of long, quiet pauses to mull things over. It's also, thankfully, a movie devoid of Good Guys and easy solutions: Clooney, for example, rapidly becomes as screwed up as everyone else on board, and even ups the ante a bit. This isn't one of those stories where the characters know what's going on but the audience doesn't, or vice versa; everyone seems to be stumbling around in the same fog. At no point does a scientist in a white lab coat announce "we've figured out the source of the problem, and I shall now explain it in layman's terms". If you like your films cryptic -- and I do -- Solaris is a must-see.
And Clooney is terrific, of course. Can we all just agree that he's a fine, fine actor? Yes, I know all about E.R. and that godawful Batman movie, but look at Three Kings, look at Out of Sight, look at Thin Red Line. And if you remain unconvinced, look at this film, which he (and along with co-star Natascha McElhone) pretty much carries. When Clooney acts confused and terrified in Solaris, the entire audience feels confused and terrified.
Solaris is a riveting film, mostly. I must admit that the final fourth of the film (that's secret code for "The Ending") left me cold, although I can't put my finger on why. Perhaps simply because the director had to provide resolution to a story that was so aggressively open-ended. As Soderbergh chose some threads to tie up and left others dangling, it was if I could hear the grinding as he tried to downshift the movie to the point where he could put it in park. But even so, this is one of the finest science-fiction flicks to come down the pike in a while, and I recommend it to anyone in the mood for goregous special effects and some deep, deep thoughts.Posted on December 10, 2002 to Movies