By Matt Singer
Fourteen people walked out on Solaris when I saw it. The people all around me were muttering and sighing and grunting, and when people left some started laughing and tittering like they were ten years old and someone just passed gas. These were not teenagers mind you; without exception, these were men and women in their 40s through their 70s. They were the ones walking out and not paying attention and asking their neighbors, “Wait, this movie is a science fiction picture?” Oy.
Now, I’m not calling Solaris a classic, but it certainly deserves a little more respect, or at least some patience. Unlike so many movies, this is one that does not pander to an audience or pad its running time with lavish special effects and stunts. Yes old lady who sat next to me, this is a science fiction picture, but it is surprisingly quiet and moody. Most of the real technical stuff is in the background; we never, for example, learn the year or the location of the planet Solaris, or anything like that. Solaris is about emotions not technical jargon.
George Clooney, in another strong performance, stars as Chris Kelvin, a psychiatrist who is sent to investigate strange happenings on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. When he arrives (and after he pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey), he finds only two crewmembers alive: Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davis). Before he can fully understand what has happened on Solaris, Chris is visited by his wife Rhea (Natasha McElhone). It is strange that she appears on the space station far from earth, and even stranger since she died years ago.
I will not reveal why or how Rhea has appeared. Still, the plot is largely irrelevant to Solaris, as director and screenwriter Steven Soderbergh is more interested with ideas like regret and guilt than in conventions like conflict or action. Soderbergh, who has directed Ocean's Eleven and Full Frontal in the last twelve months, proves that he is one of our most daring directors, moving from crime to experimental video to austere science fiction. Love or hate his films, you have to admire his variety, and also his ability to get films he wants made onto the screen. Solaris is difficult and strange, and if did not have his name on it (along with that of producer James Cameron), I doubt we’d ever see it in this form in multiplexes around the country.
Still, I am not ready to call Solaris a great film. First, I’d like to see if a few more times just to really wrap my brain around the thing, and even then I believe I’d still have some problems with it. While I admire Soderbergh’s choice of topics, there are other films that have dealt with obsessive guilt in smarter and more compelling ways (Most significantly, Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Primary amongst Solaris’ problems is that its excess of style seems to get in the way of fully understanding and appreciating its focal love story. We glimpse at Chris and Rhea’s life together, but not enough, and never in a way that surpasses generic overly-cutsey couples stuff. I was far more moved by the love story in the recent Punch-Drunk Love. Clooney lets his emotions simmer beneath the surface and then boil over in well-placed bursts of rage, but for all the show I felt surprisingly distant.
Some might argue that this is, to a degree, the point of Solaris. It makes a lot of the fallacies of memory and the trappings of perspective. But wouldn’t Solaris be even more fascinating if we could see what Chris doesn’t and why? The choice of point of view and the hour-and-a-half running time are perfectly fine, but we need more richness and emotion and character. And yet, I’m glad I saw Solaris and glad it was made. For ninety minutes I got to think about my life and ponder some of its meaning. There is a time and place for snowboarders fighting terrorists, but there is also a time for using your brain. Certain members of the audience would be wise to remember that.