Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Ulrich Tukur
Tag line: "How far will you go for a second chance?"
Trivia: James Cameron considered directing but opted to produce instead
Director Steven Soderbergh insists his 2002 film, Solaris, was not a remake of the ‘72 Andrei Tarkovsky Sci-Fi classic, but a re-interpretation of the Stanislaw Lem novel it’s based on. Regardless of whether or not this is true, Soderbergh’s Solaris is, like Tarkovsky’s, an effective combination of romance and psychology, posing the eternal question of what it means to be alive.
Chris Kelvin (Clooney), a psychiatrist who, several years earlier, lost his wife under tragic circumstances, receives a recorded message from the spaceship Prometheus, which is orbiting the distant planet Solaris. The message, sent by his longtime friend, Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), one of three scientists serving aboard the Prometheus, asks for Kelvin’s help, yet offers no explanation of why it’s needed. When Kelvin arrives on the Prometheus, he finds Gibarian has already killed himself, and only Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davis) remain. Kelvin tries to figure out what’s going on, but is given no answers. “Until you start experiencing it yourself”, Gordon says to him, “there’s nothing to talk about”.
That night, Kelvin drifts to sleep and dreams of the first time he met his late wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). As he does so, the planet Solaris becomes active, and before long, he’s awakened by someone who looks very much like his wife. This woman, who claims to be Rheya, is able to describe their first meeting in detail. Out of fear, Kelvin tricks her into entering a shuttle pod and launches her into space. But no matter; according to Snow, it won’t be long before she appears again. Sure enough, Rheya rematerializes the next night, with no memory of ever having left the ship. After a few days, Kelvin not only accepts that this stranger is Rheya, but finds he’s falling in love with her. Yet even Rheya realizes her existence doesn’t make sense, and begins to question why she’s there.
The romantic aspects of Soderbergh’s Solaris work very well, and are aided by a series of flashbacks, where we’re shown glimpses of Kelvin’s and Rheya’s time together before her death. Unlike Tarkovsky's film, these sequences give us a sense of exactly what it was Kelvin lost when Rheya died, and explain his motivations for keeping this “new” Rheya around. Such scenes are further strengthened by Clooney and McElhone, who successfully portray two lovers who’ve gone through hell together. As for the other performances, Jeremy Davies is excellent as the hyperactive Snow, a man hiding a whopper of a secret, and the always reliable Viola Davis is strong as Gordon, the sole voice of reason and the only one on board the Prometheus committed to resolving their situation.
Soderbergh’s Solaris asks all the same questions Tarkovsky’s film did 30 years earlier, including the ever-important query of what it is that defines being ‘alive’? Rheya appears to be a living, breathing person. She’s a physical presence, with memories and emotions, yet even she has doubts as to whether or not it’s all “real”. This issue of existence, and what constitutes life, is always lurking under the surface of Soderbergh’s Solaris, a well-made, smart, and thought-provoking motion picture that explores these complex topics in great detail, while also providing a truly convincing love story.