A brooding attempt at a metaphysical meditation on love lost and regained, "Solaris" is an investigation of primal emotions approached in an entirely cerebral manner. This second screen version of Stanislaw Lem's novel is technically superb, but suspense-free story here is a galaxy away from "Alien" territory and makes for a pure art film.

A brooding attempt at a metaphysical meditation on love lost and regained, “Solaris” is an investigation of primal emotions approached in an entirely cerebral manner. Largely set aboard a spacecraft but a sci-fi entry in name only, this second screen version of Stanislaw Lem’s novel is technically superb and features a strong, serious performance by George Clooney as a doctor sent to deep space to check out the strange fate of another craft’s crew. But despite the setup, mysterious but suspense-free story here is a galaxy away from “Alien” territory and makes for a pure art film about which mainstream audiences won’t have a clue, prefiguring distinctly modest B.O. in most situations.

As far as Steven Soderbergh is concerned, it’s now evident that 2002 will go down as a year of experimentation after his remarkable commercial and artistic run that included winning an Oscar for “Traffic.” Whereas the recent “Full Frontal” seemed to please almost no one, “Solaris” likely will develop a following among some critics and serious cinephiles who will value the intellectually ambitious and defiantly uncommercial nature of Soderbergh’s undertaking more than they will mind its lack of genuine depth and profundity.

Despite its undeniably pure and earnest intent, “Solaris” is equally undeniably an arid, dull affair that imposes and maintains a huge distance between the viewer and what happens onscreen, and never successfully negotiates the paradox of being a study of the deepest emotions that doesn’t engage the heart for a moment.

Previous version of the book, directed in 1972 by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, was both a tour de force and, at 165 minutes, a chore to sit through. Too conveniently celebrated by some as a Soviet response to “2001,” pic did offer a distinctive aesthetic and a genuinely mystical dimension that presented an inchoate but nonetheless intriguing challenge to prevailing Soviet philosophy and approved subject matter.

Working in his own way against conventional norms and the expectations of Hollywood commercial cinema (and gratifyingly cutting the running time by more than an hour), Soderbergh turns the material in a more personal direction to make it something close to a “Scenes From a Marriage in Outer Space.” Grieving over the death of his wife, psychologist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) agrees to an urgent appeal to visit the distant space station Prometheus, find out why the crew has ceased communication and bring them back home; in a videotaped plea for his close friend to come to the rescue, mission commander Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) cryptically cautions that he “can’t be specific” about what’s going on up there.

The early earthbound scenes are among the film’s most beautiful. Dramatically composed isolated shots showing the doctor at home, in therapy and on the rain-swept streets of what is presumably a future Los Angeles possess richly resonant dark coloration, with some of the blackest blacks seen onscreen in recent memory. Without suggesting that he is becoming any less a director, it can be said that Soderbergh (working as usual under the nom de camera of Peter Andrews) is becoming an increasingly expert cinematographer; working mostly in close-ups with longish lenses, he keeps the focus tightly upon his actors as sets provide a lustrous but impersonal backdrop.

Arriving at Prometheus, which soars above the eponymous, gaseous-looking planet, Chris finds Gibarian dead and the two surviving crew members in a very strange state. Affected young scientist Snow (Jeremy Davies) jabbers on without managing to say anything coherent about what’s afflicting them, while the formidable Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis), who has retreated to her room, warns Chris, “Until it starts happening to you, there’s really no point in discussing it.”

What happens to Chris on his first night there is a vivid dream about his entrancing first encounter and initial night of lovemaking with his wife-to-be, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Upon awakening, he finds Rheya, or someone/something just like her, next to him, in the flesh. Thus begins a long, almost clinical inquiry into the history of their marriage paralleled with the attempt by both Chris and Rheya to figure out exactly what’s happening between them on board the spaceship.

Flashes of intense intimate moments from the past delineate the quick, anger-fueled deterioration of the marriage, while the present soon becomes enshrouded in uncertainty as Rheya admits to suspicions that “I’m not the person I remember.” Chris and Rheya hope to learn from their mistakes the first time around to make their relationship work now, but all the introspection and angst pay uncertain dividends amidst the anxiety over the reliability of memory and doubts as to whether the “new” Rheya is human at all. This makes the climactic stab at redemption a particularly murky matter that will leave most viewers wondering what the hell it was they just watched — and it won’t be their fault.

However cold and obscure the entire venture may be, individual scenes have been made with commendable rigor and dispatch and an unerring eye for texture. The piquant flashbacks leave no doubt as to the highly charged amorous nature of Chris and Rheya’s relationship, and Clooney does a highly creditable job of carrying the film’s freight on his shoulders even as the cargo becomes increasingly unwieldy. McElhone is very good in the direct verbal exchanges with her co-star, but it would no doubt lie beyond any thesp to transcend the confusion that overtakes the role in the late going.

Davis commands the screen whenever she’s on, while the weirdly gesticulating Davies appears grubby and mannered. Production values are, in a word, stellar, with an understated emphasis on realism. Philip Messina’s production design makes the technical world of this unspecified time in the future entirely plausible, while Milena Canonero’s costume design takes similarly modest but creative liberties with current fashion. Cliff Martinez’s resourceful score makes unusual use of steel drum and gamelan instrumentations, and sound mix is exceptional.

Solaris

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Lightstorm Entertainment production. Produced by James Cameron, Rae Sanchini, Jon Landau. Executive producer, Gregory Jacobs. Co-producers, Michael Polaire, Charles V. Bender. Directed, written by Steven Soderbergh, based on the book by Stanislaw Lem.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, Deluxe prints; Panavision widescreen), Peter Andrews; editor, Mary Ann Bernard; music, Cliff Martinez; production designer, Philip Messina; art directors, Steve Arnold, Keith P. Cunningham; set designers, Andrea Dopaso, Dawn Brown Manser, Victor Martinez, Jeff Ozimek, Easton Smith, Suzan Wexler; set decorator, Kristen Toscano Messina; costume designer, Milena Canonero; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Paul Ledford; supervising sound editor, Larry Blake; visual effects and animation, Cinesite; planet development and effects, Rhythm & Hues Studios; assistant director, Gregory Jacobs. Reviewed at Arclight Hollywood, L.A., Nov. 19, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Dr. Chris Kelvin - George Clooney Rheya - Natascha McElhone Snow - Jeremy Davies Dr. Helen Gordon - Viola Davis Gibarian - Ulrich Tukur
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