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Solaris (Frank's Take)

01/01/2003. Contributed by Frank Ochieng

Buy Solaris in the USA - or Buy Solaris in the UK

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Franks plonks himself down for another movie, and discovers the Soderbergh-Clooney collaboration continues to roll along, as they serve up an ambitious but intermittently uneven science fiction love story in the visually stimulating space opera Solaris.

Film review by Frank Ochieng
Solaris (2002) 20th Century Fox
1 hr. 39 mins.
Starring: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies, Ulrich Tukur
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Rating: ** stars (out of 4 stars)

The Soderbergh-Clooney collaboration continues to roll along as they serve up an ambitious but intermittently uneven sci-fi love story in the visually stimulating space opera Solaris. Writer-director Steven Soderbergh's choppy but philosophically profound fantasy epic is based on the 1972 Russian film of the same name.

In fact, both narratives are derived from the Stanislaw Lem science fiction novel. This is quite a tricky cinematic sell because Solaris is a notoriously slow-moving story that drags out its suspense at a snail's pace. As a science fiction exposition, this is not always the right ingredient to add when you are talking about incorporating a sluggish moodiness into an otherwise vibrant genre.

But Soderbergh does garner some credit for meshing together an artfully and inquisitive film that wants to parlay its passion of emotions without necessary dwelling on the perfunctory giddiness of planetary platitudes. Overall, Solaris is an odd albeit disjointed tale of one man's journey that takes him on an unexpected adventure that sometimes evokes sophistication while inviting inexplicable lapses of stagnation.

Solaris tells the tale of widower Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), a psychologist/therapist sent to a space station that is currently orbiting a planet-sized body in the galaxy known as Solaris. Kelvin needs to gather some information about the disappearance of that station's crew while trying to entice the remaining survivors to come home with him due to the unpredictability of that space site's menacing influence.

Solaris, despite its intoxicating surroundings, is an ominous venue. One can simply tell by the shell-shocked individuals that seem rather disillusioned and detached. It doesn't take long for Kelvin to hold the belief that his supposedly deceased wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone, Feardomcom) may be lurking about on the ship in mysterious fashion.

The film tries to reinforce a steady diet of contemplation, confusion and coincidence. No doubt Soderbergh and his collaborators focus on the sleepy aspects of this movie and pass it off as a measurement of miraculous happenstances.

When Kelvin is summoned to investigate the research station via an urgent recorded message from his scientist friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), we sense automatically that Kelvin's probing tendencies will go well beyond that of the station's needs.

The daunting task of asking a complex Kelvin to look into the heart of the matter concerning a strange hold that exists on this space station is somewhat ingenious because it forces our wily protagonist to search his own cluttered and unfulfilled heart in the making.

And so the film, in an awkward and obvious manner, dabbles in the big expectations of drudging up inescapable reminiscences that recall classics from the timeless Stanley Kubrick masterpiece epic 2001: A Space Odyssey to James Cameron's box office bonanza Titanic (incidentally, Cameron happens to be one of the "name value" producers behind this project).

Solaris does, for the most part, capture an eerily weirdness that fortifies this checkered constellation-conceived love story. The concoction regarding gimmicky storytelling devices are instilled in some reasonable way to give an impression of a hearty relationship torn apart by loss only to be revived by ambiguous flashes of imagination and anticipation.

Instantly, the film connects Kelvin with a "visitor" in the form of his beloved wife Rheya. But how can this be? Through occasional dream sequences and other flashback methods, we get an idea how tightly devoted and bonded the Kelvins are passionately. Their love is uniquely sealed but inevitable fate will eventually have a say in that matter. But when Kelvin awakes and finds a seemingly fleshy Rheya sharing his bed, he panics and tries to make sense out of his delusional state.

Meanwhile, Rheya (or the life form that proposes to be Rheya) cannot quite understand Kelvin's peculiar reactions to her. Is there some cosmic conspiracy to entrap Chris Kelvin's emotional unstableness? Or is there some alien intelligence from the Solaris forces that are getting back at Kelvin for his bothersome interference? Maybe it is Kelvin's own disoriented wishful thinking that is distorting his reality?

One can applaud Solaris for presenting an entrancing story that embraces the notion of creating conflicting issues without going way out to address the inquiries it enjoys dangling before the pondering audience. This brand of filmmaking, especially in the prototypical universe of sci-fi cinema, can be a welcoming tactic to utilize.

And by riding on the wave of uncertainty within the movie's premise, some will actually get a charge out of figuring out what may be an equivalent to an unsolved celluloid jigsaw puzzle. But unfortunately for Solaris, its presentation is so tepidly ponderous that its penchant for vague incompleteness does not come off as chic or shrewd but meandering and slight.

Visually arousing and spry in its skin, Solaris is to be commended for its ability to cling onto the ideal philosophy of self-reflective love and loyalty to one's inner soul.

This is an admirable approach but Soderbergh forgot to pinpoint one major point-we somehow do not connect easily or know enough about these characters to appreciate the degree of pain and personal suffering that linger in their psyche. One doesn't mind the route in which Soderbergh travels down the road of exploration to get into the bewildered heads of its dedicated but disenchanted leads.

However, there's not an adequate dose of meaty angst to suggest or support Clooney's Kelvin psychological aching for McElhone's desirable and mysterious Rheya.

Instead of actually tapping into the raw and riveting union of Chris and Rheya in helpful detail, we're merely relying on the surface trivialities of their nostalgic mutual love for one another through arbitrary sequences meant to give us a derivative peek into their past solely for the purpose of maintaining the relevance of Kelvin's current craving for his late wife amid the quiet chaos that is the Solaris experience.

And speaking of Solaris, Soderbergh doesn't even take the time to elaborate on this so-called space-aged element that's supposedly triggering this perplexing Milky Way mystery.

Thus, more questions are presented that heighten the cockeyed proceedings: Just what is Solaris and its basis for functioning? How far is it from Earth? Is it a perceived threat to Earth as an entity? Is Solaris in our solar system or does it have dastardly plans to infiltrate our section of the galaxy?

Again, it's a cute concept to introduce a sketchy component to the movie and withhold a majority of the tidbits involved but it doesn't work in this instance at all. Sure, maybe the moviegoers can overlook the glossed-over specifics of the Kelvin connection but to keep us in the dark about the entity that's causing the intensity and commotion? C'mon folks, the film is called Solaris! We should at least know what the titular theme is all about since it's essential to the plot.

Clooney gives a solid performance as the soul-searching healer of other people's mental mishaps while harboring the inability to resolve his own guilt-ridden crisis.

McElhone is definitely effective as the object of affection that disappears into her characterization with resounding conviction. The supporting cast holds its own weight as evidenced by colorful scientists Snow and Gordon played by Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis respectively.

Solaris may be an elaborate and glossy-looking B-movie that's hard to try and define convincingly. Much like its movie makeup, one will be asking themselves about its true intentions. Is it an unconventional thriller or an unusual plodding action adventure? Is it a saccharine-coated sci-fi soap opera or a Freudian fantasy?

Whatever the label, Soderbergh and his cinematic sidekick and occasionally dependable leading man Clooney conjure up a well-meaning, atmospheric space-aged spectacle that hinges on a type of romanticism that countless females may find rewarding (after all ladies, it does feature your adorable George Clooney) and some sci-fi enthusiasts will find mildly appetizing.

As a thoughtful but self-indulgent showcase, Solaris has its rare moments of chilly reception. Hey, what can one say? The film's pathos is in the pudding but the taste has the welcomed flavor of a crunchy moon rock.

Frank rates this film: ** stars (out of 4 stars)

Frank Ochieng

(c) Frank Ochieng 2003

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