By Joe Lozito
I worry about Steven Soderbergh. The wunderkind director who brought us such varied successes as "sex, lies and videotape", "Out of Sight", "The Limey" and "Traffic" is a solid, proven filmmaker. He has a film school student's love for the medium. But after his experimental improv "Full Frontal" and his ill-advised remake of "Ocean's 11", his self-indulgent streak is showing. While Mr. Soderbergh's direction is always compelling, the whole film does not always equal the sum of its parts.
Such is the case with "Solaris", Mr. Soderbergh's vision of Stanislaw Lem's sci-fi classic. Of course, Mr. Lem's novel was famously filmed in 1972 by Russian genius Andrei Tarkovsky and became a kind of flipside to Stanley Kubrick's "2001". Mr. Soderbergh, teaming again with the unflappable George Clooney, has stripped down Mr. Tarkovsky's three-plus hour opus into a more palatable 100 minutes. But the story Mr. Soderbergh wants to tell is so straight-forward that the film feels padded and drawn-out.
The title refers to a planet that is able to read the minds of the crew of an orbiting space station and manifest their fantasies into flesh. For psychologist Chris Kelvin (Mr. Clooney) this apparition takes the form of his dead wife Rheya (Ms. McElhone). But Rheya committed suicide, so how is this possible? Is this heaven? Is Chris alive or dead? And can he live with this vision as a second chance to be with his wife?
Mr. Soderbergh's "Solaris" suffers because, by now, the idea of an entity that can bring to life your deepest desires has been done to death by "Star Trek", "The X-files", "The New Twilight Zone" and countless other WB and UPN knock-offs. It's possible that Mr. Soderbergh is not himself a sci-fi aficionado and doesn't realize that he is walking on well-trodden ground, which only makes things worse. There's nothing more unmoving than having someone prove a point that's already been hammered home many times before.
The most interesting wrinkle in the film is the idea that the planet's manifestations are taken out of your mind, so they are only as real as you remember them. Since Chris thought of his wife as suicidal, this new Rheya is also that way. How well we real ever know another person is a fascinating topic and worthy of its own film, possibly even directed by Mr. Soderbergh. But "Solaris" does little besides pose these questions in scene after scene of torturous flashback and extreme close-up. The actors try their best, but are able to do little but go through the emotions.