Alone in Space
Steven Soderbergh, director of the latest version of Solaris, must harbor a great deal of sympathy for lonely and self-shackled individuals. Such was the state of his two protagonists in Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Spending a good portion of their lives walling themselves inside what they believed was a shelter of emotional security, they eventually saw the light and broke free in the end. Earlier this year, Soderbergh's Full Frontal less successfully addressed this theme, and, because of its atmosphere of mockery, failed to live up to its half-hearted billing as "the unofficial sequel to Sex, Lies, and Videotape."
Finally, the real "unofficial sequel" has arrived, and it is Solaris. George Clooney's Chris Kelvin, the story's lonely protagonist, is trapped inside a bubble where he thinks he has control of his situation. However, this bubble isn't a videotaping habit or a sham of a marriage -- it's nothing less than an existential containment, one where the human tendency to find a reason for everything acts as the bars of the cage.
Adapted from the 1961 science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem (Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky adapted it to film the first time in 1972), Solaris easily could have been put through a series of cliched sci-fi aerobics, but you'll find relatively little 2001-style pretensions and "Twilight Zone" plot-twisting here. Soderbergh's film is bare, lean, and focuses on the only thing that matters -- the emotional journey of Kelvin. Having lost his wife (Natascha McElhone) in the not-too-distant past, the devastated Kelvin lives in a state of perpetually sad weariness. He is soon summoned to a space station by an urgent message for help from an ex-colleague. The station orbits an eerie pink-and-blue planet called Solaris, and being in its vicinity has apparently caused many strange things to occur on the vessel.
But exactly what these odd events are and how they're occurring isn't the crux of the movie. Soderbergh uses the planet's effect on Kelvin as the means to delve into his psychological state, to explore the consequences of his guilt on himself and others, and to guide him toward a possible spiritual enlightenment.
The actual enactment of the events is menacing, sad, and bewildering. Soderbergh enhances the feeling of desolation with such elements as: the setting (the space station); the spare use of a mallet-based score; numerous small, interruptive flashbacks; haunting dream sequences; and frequent conversations in which one of the character's voices comes from off-screen (as if in a documentary interview). Not exactly a pick-me-up, this movie requires much patience on the part of its viewers.
Once his dilemma is upon him, Kelvin grapples with what he wants to do. When emotions begin to get the better of him, one of the surviving crew members, Gordon (Viola Davis), presents use of logical reasoning as the solution. But her actions and suggestions may be exactly what is hindering Kelvin's escape from his misery. Indeed, the film's most successful accomplishment lies in showing the audience how easy it would be to side with reason while demonizing pure emotions. Looking for explanations often diverts us from simply accepting what is before us, allowing fear and suspicion to blockade us from our true feelings and desires.
Anyway, that's one message I took away from Solaris. Others will surely have their own interpretations. Overall, Solaris is a haunting little movie, one which concentrates on the essentials while inviting contemplation. My suggestion to viewers, though, is not to think too hard, for this exploration of a man's desolation speaks less to the mind and more to the heart.
(Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.)
Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "PG-13" for sexuality/nudity, brief language and thematic elements.