What is it with film distributors? Here we were on the eve of Thanksgiving with every family in the land geared for a fun-and-games flick following consumption of the holiday bird. You know, everyone is geared up for the likes of James Bond or Harry Potter, but for a rain-drenched remake of a 30-year-old Soviet psychological sci-fi number? Please. I ask you.
Now, Steven Soderbergh has proved himself a most adept and popular director, witness his Academy Award winning "Traffic" and his box office biggie "Ocean's Eleven." But "Solaris" is a very different piece of work indeed.
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The original novel on which it was based by Polish author Stanislaw Lem is a very serious, almost grim piece of fiction. So too was the 1972 film of the same name by the brilliant young Soviet director, Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films over the decades were to grow increasingly bleak to the point of being downright opaque and obscure.
Soderbergh has taken large elements from the original Lem story, but has cast – reshaped – his version into one of those post 9-11 pieces of work that seem to be turning up everywhere with dismaying frequency. Witness the novel of Alice Sebold, "Lovely Bones," that has been riding at the top of the best-seller list for something like 23 weeks. The story, narrated by a 14-year-old girl, raped and murdered, purports to show a wonderful, dreamy, positively cuddly afterlife where family dogs greet one and little girls can experience high school by reading fashion magazines and never having to study. There is no heaven, no hell, no God – and certainly not his Son seated at His right hand to judge the quick and the dead.
In this post 9-11 "Solaris," psychiatrist Chris Kelvin, played by a grave George Clooney in what can best be described as a straight B performance, is sent to investigate the curious behavior of some scientists aboard the space station Prometheus orbiting over a very strange planet named Solaris.
Clooney finds that his friend who had called for his help has killed himself. The two remaining crewmembers are singular in their own right. Jeremy Davies as Snow is like a leftover from the hippy stage of the sixties. "Strange stuff, man. Strange." No further coherence can be gotten from him. The remaining member, Dr. Helen Gordon (Viola Davis), has locked herself in her quarters and will only talk to Clooney through the door.
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Baffled and confused, Clooney turns in for the night, finally falls asleep and begins dreaming of his late wife on Earth, when suddenly he wakes to find his naked wife in his arms. But is she (Natascha McElhone) really his wife returned to life or an emanation from the planet Solaris? She has memories, but only partial memories, which drive her to attempt suicide. But Solaris returns her to life, or so it seems.
All three versions of "Solaris" leave the George Clooney character choosing to remain millions of light years from planet Earth, but what a difference in approach: Lem's is the grimmest, with our hero left sitting on a beach facing a strange kind of living ocean, waiting for "cruel miracles." Tarkovsky has his protagonist kneeling in front of his father's house, apparently on Earth, until the camera pulls back – way back – revealing him alone on a small island surrounded by a vast ocean.
Soderbergh, who has been pushing the romantic/erotic tone with steady intensity, has Clooney letting Dr. Gordon fly back to Earth, alone, while he lies slumped on the floor of the satellite until a little boy appears to stand over him, reaching out with one hand to make contact to Clooney's hand – a virtual replica of that Michelangelo fresco of God's finger bringing life to Adam.
The future for Soderbergh is clearly destined to be a happy one. No cruel miracles here, only nice upbeat ones. Upbeat at the box office? Think Bond and Potter films still secure high on the list.