Solaris (2002) [Review Re-View]
Originally released November 27, 2002:
A most amazing thing occurred when I sat down in my theater to watch Steven Soderbergh’s sci-fi remake, Solaris. The majority of the theater was women, no small part I’m sure to George Clooney and the promise to see his posterior not once but twice. As the film progressed I kept hearing the rattling of seats and the exit doors. When the lights came back on more than half my theater had walked out on Solaris. I have never seen this many walk outs for any film before, and if one has to hold this title Solaris certainly does not deserve this dubious honor.
Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, super future psychologist who is struggling to overcome the grief over the suicide of his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Clooney is dispatched to a space station orbiting the mysterious glowing planet Solaris. Seems strange goings on, are, well, going on. When he arrives he finds that the station head has taken his own life and the two remaining crew members on board could use more than a few hugs. Clooney goes to sleep (in a bed resembling bubble-wrap) and is startled awake when his dead wife is suddenly lying right beside him. But is it his wife? Is it merely his memories being recounted? Is it Solaris messing with his gray matter? Does Rheya have consciousness of the past or of her self? What are her thoughts on her new materialization? Good luck Steven Soderbergh, existentialist party of one.
It’s not that Solaris is necessarily a bad film, it’s just that it’s plodding, mechanical and overly ambitious. There are long periods of staring, followed by brief exposition, then more staring, sometimes earnestly but mostly slack-jawed. Solaris is attempting to be an existential meditation on identity and self, but what really occurs is a lot of nothingness. For a movie that was over three hours in its original 1971 Russian conception, and a mere 93 minutes in its slimmer Soderbergh size, I could likely get this movie done in 6 minutes. It could be argued that its arduous pacing amplifies its methodical subject matter but whatever.
Clooney has said in interviews how Solaris was the most challenging role of his career. To this I make a collective noise of disagreement. Clooney turns from grief-stricken to confusion, then back to grief-stricken with nary a line of dialogue. The effect is more dampening than emotional. Clooney’s conscience gets even worse when he banishes New Rheya into the cold vacuum of space then Another Rheya appears the next night. He just can’’t escape this dead woman.
I’m very pleased to see the glassy-eyed, apple-cheeked actress McElhone in movies again. She seemed to be on the cusp of mainstream acceptance after prominent roles in 1998’s Truman Show and Ronin, yet she just disappeared. McElhone is a wonderfully expressive actress and deserves to be a leading lady.
Soderbergh’s take on existential dread could be described as a noble failure. Solaris is the type of overreaching, underachieving film only really talented people could make. And for anyone wanting to leave after the double dose of Clooney’s derriere, they both happen in the first 30 minutes. You can go after that if you so choose.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I think Steven Soderbergh is the perfect film artist to discuss the topic of the “noble failure.” That’s what I dubbed his remake of Solaris in 2002, and having re-watched it twenty years later I would still concur. Soderbergh is the ultimate idiosyncratic indie auteur who, miraculously, found himself Hollywood success and power. Soderbergh is probably best known for the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy of slick, star-powered heist movies, or his Oscar-winning 2000 movies Traffic and Erin Brockovich. The last time a person scored two Best Director nominations in the same year was 1938 (Michael Curtiz for Angels with Dirty Faces and Four Daughters, if you are dying to know). Soderbergh has never rested on his many laurels, and every new mainstream success inevitably saw the man flirt with new narrative and technical experimentation. It seems like Soderbergh gets restless every so often and needs to find a different reason to excite him about a filmmaking challenge. He made a small indie about workers in a decaying doll factory that was released same day on DVD as it was in theaters. He made a two-movie political epic on the rise and fall of revolutionary Che Guevara to showcase the amazing capabilities RED high-definition digital camera. He created an action vehicle for MMA fighter Gina Carano because he saw a future star-in the-making in her bouts. He filmed a movie entirely on an iPhone camera because he could. He made a movie about male strippers based upon Channing Tatum’s past experiences and it became one of the most successful movies of his career.
In short, Soderbergh is a restless artist who always seems to be trying to challenge himself. However, many of those experiments don’t always work. 2018’s Unsane would have been forgettable minus its iPhone gimmick. 2006’s The Good German would have been forgettable without its pastiche to older Hollywood style. Even when his movies do not fully work, you feel Soderbergh’s passion to experiment and push his boundaries. It’s with this context that I re-watched 2002’s Solaris, based upon the 1972 meditative and melancholic sci-fi movie by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s amazing to me that Soderbergh, right after his twin Oscar noms and the box-office success of 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven gave him artistic cache, said, “I want to remake a three-hour Russian movie from thirty years ago.” And the studio said, “Oh, well, keep it under 50 million and half as long and we don’t care.” In 2002, Solaris was one of my more memorable theatergoing experiences, as I detailed in my original review. I’ve had walkouts during other divisive movies but nothing like what happened for Solaris. I’m fairly certain it was a matter of the crowd being sold a sci-fi movie with Clooney’s handsome mug, “from the director of Ocean’s Eleven,” and the promise of catching some Clooney rear nudity (12 days prior, the movie had received an R-rating before successfully appealing to a PG-13). They weren’t expecting a very minimalist, cerebral, and slow movie about grief and identity (it got a rare F grade from opening weekend Cinemascore audiences). By the end of the movie, the majority of patrons in my theater had left early. I thought maybe revisiting this movie twenty years later would perhaps allow me to find new artistic merit into this box-office dud. I have not.
There are ideas here worth exploring and unpacking, especially once the main conflict is fully established, namely Clooney’s dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Why is she coming back is less an interesting question, and thankfully the screenplay by Soderbergh ignores answering. It’s all about the effect it’s having on her husband and whether or not she is who she is. There’s an existential question of whether or not she constitutes living and what aspects do we hold onto to prove we are who we are? Is this the real Rheya, has she been plucked back from an afterlife? Is this a Rheya who has access to her earlier memories? Or is this Rheya merely a composite of her husband’s memories and personal and flawed interpretations? The mind boggles.
It’s that final question that presents the most intriguing exploration, as it presents Rheya less a fully-dimensional character and more a prisoner to her husband’s perspective. His view of Rheya can be biased, flawed, filling in gaps with assumptions and speculations, like his speculation that the real Rheya was so remorseful about aborting her child that she took her own life after being confronted by her husband. This leads the Solaris-rebooted version of Rheya to be more undone by depression and suicidal impulses. I enjoyed this portion because it shifted the criticism onto Clooney who refused to let her be gone. He even plans on taking Rheya back to Earth, even though that might not be possible. Will she evaporate if she gets too far away from the orbit of Solaris? We’ve gone beyond whether or not Rheya is a hallucination because the other crew mates (Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis) see her too. The movie flirts with the confrontation of Clooney’s character’s implicit control, that he’s literally dreaming a version of her for his emotional needs and he doesn’t care whether or not it’s the real Rheya. It begs the question of how well anyone can truly know another person. There will always be some observer distance, unable to fully delve into every hidden quarter of another person’s mind and heart. Clooney accepting his loss would have been a fine ending point, or refusing to, and Solaris does end on a similar downer ending, though with more radiant ambiguity. It’s interesting but it doesn’t really open up thematically or character-wise, keeping Clooney’s mournful space psychologist at a unsatisfying clinical distance. Just because we see moments of characters longing and looking emotionally bereft does not mean we know them. Maybe, in the end, that was Soderbergh’s meta-textual in-movie criticism.
At 93 minutes, there’s not much to Solaris beyond its intriguing questions that feel only fitfully toyed with. There is a lot of empty space here for diving deeper into the characters and the relationships and big questions, but the movie feels too weighed down with its overwrought import. Scenes don’t play out so much as escape from the ponderous atmosphere. There are intriguing questions here but there isn’t enough story material to keep me connected. As a result, I became restless myself, zoning out while I watched a person stare off into the distance for the eleventh time, this time knowing that their internal thinking had to be different, somehow, from the ten other times. It’s a sci-fi movie without big special effects or action sequences. It’s starring George Clooney in, possibly, his most insular, minimalist role of his career. It was never going to be a jaunty crowd-pleaser. I haven’t seen the 1972 Russian movie but given its lengthy running time and the fact that it’s reflective of a Russian cultural experience, I have to assume there is more substance there and an adequate foundation to tease out these questions, but I’m free to admit my assumptions, much like Clooney’s character, could be all wrong.
As for my original review in 2002, I got to hand it to my twenty-year-old self. This is a solid analysis and with some snappy wordplay to boot. I’m impressed by this review. Solaris is another of Soderbergh’s “noble failures,” a project that cannot quite grasp its reach, but I’d rather artists like Soderbergh keep trying and litter the cinema with noble failures than inundate us with the same-old same-old.
Re-View Grade: C+
Posted on November 24, 2022, in 2002 Movies, Review Re-View and tagged drama, george clooney, jeremy davies, remake, sci-fi, space, steven soderbergh, viola davis. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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