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Looking Back: Solaris (2002)

I first encountered Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” when I was in college. A film periodical informed me of “the Russian ‘2001’” and my local library had one of those bulky, two-videocassette holding boxes that required commitment and not a casual watch. The 1972 film, which is based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, is set in the near future and is about a doctor who journeys to a space station hovering above a planet named Solaris. Those aboard the space station have been having strange encounters and the powers that be in Earth have sent up the good doctor to investigate.

Although the 3-hour running time and a number of awfully long-winded scenes proved challenging, “Solaris” rewarded my patience and left with so much to ponder. The final image it closes on continues to haunt me and the philosophical questions it raises are rich and rewarding to ponder.

Although Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of “Solaris” is under two hours, it manages to encapsulate so much of the intellectual qualities, plot turns and lingering visual power of Tarkovsky’s film.

George Clooney stars as Chris Kelvin, a doctor whose investigation of the Solaris space station reveals his doomed relationship with Rheya on Earth is miraculously given another chapter.

Clooney initially seems to be having a hard time standing still. Over the course of the film, his head bobbing, cocksure swagger fades away and he finds the aching heart of his character. As good as his chemistry is with Natasha McElhone (in a bewitching, scary performance), Clooney is even better sharing the screen with an excellent Viola Davis. Playing another astronaut aboard the station is Jeremy Davis, in a predictably mannered, twitch-heavy performance that kind-of justifies itself in the end.

Cliff Martinez’s score is as hypnotic as the gorgeous visual effects, which is saying an awful lot. The futurist-lite vision is striking, as though we’re seeing a world just short of a few flying cars and perfected Replicants. The extraordinary cinematography (credited to “Peter Andrews” but later revealed to be Soderbergh) offers rich, visually splendid approaches to the alternating perspectives we see.

Soderbergh’s endlessly fascinating, beautiful and emotionally rich film marked the final lap of what I call his 2002 Moviegoer Alienation Tour. I’m only kind of kidding. Following the momentous success of “Erin Brokovich,” “Traffic” and “Ocean’s 11,” Soderbergh’s two ’02 films, the failed but intriguing “Full Frontal” and “Solaris” were unloved, little seen and met with a caustic response. In fact, I recall an article stating that “Solaris” was one of two ’02 films to receive an F score from audiences; the other film was P.T. Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” proving that audiences in 2002 had terrible taste.

“Solaris” raises a great deal of questions that it can’t answer but intends to torment the viewer with. Imagine this- a planet could manifest a person you dream about, but only exactly as you remember them. What would this copy, or planetary version, of this person be like? What would this copy say about how you viewed them? Would you be seeing anything truthful in this version of that person? In the case of “Solaris,” is the manifestation of Rheya from Kelvin’s mind truly a “dream girl” to pick up where he left off with or is her existence an abomination and mental poison for the rational doctor?

If all of this sounds too heady, that’s certainly the reason why “Solaris” flopped badly when it was released during Thanksgiving weekend. Soderbergh’s presentation is puzzling by design (as is his highly interpretive wrap-up) but a few moments are truly confusing.

Nevertheless, this Soderbergh/Clooney collaboration was a worthwhile (if costly) experiment for the both of them and it presents the best of both worlds for the filmmaker. Combining Soderbergh’s playfully French New Wave touches and cinematically playful approach to a big budget sci-fi love story has resulted in something truly special. It’s a remake but also a smart, compact and thoughtful tribute to what inspired it. Soderbergh’s career has always been wildly unpredictable but the tortured romance at the heart of “Solaris” is why this is my favorite of his films.

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