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Solaris, the new sci-fi movie from director Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney, isn't actually new. It's a remake of the great Andrei Tarkovsky movie, which itself was based on a Stanislaw Lem novel. It's no surprise that Soderbergh, who's known for sleek, beautiful, and approachable films (Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich), would take a different tack than the meditative, spiritual Tarkovsky. Whether it's more successful depends a lot on what you mean by success.

If nothing else, this one's got star power, as George Clooney takes the role of Kelvin, a troubled scientist who's asked to investigate strange
happenings on a space station. When he arrives, he finds that a fellow scientist has either committed suicide (the crew's assertion) or been
murdered (Kelvin's suspicion). Other crew have disappeared, and the ones that are left are in various states of shock.

At first, it's not clear what's going on. But after Kelvin's first night of restless sleep, he's startled to find his wife by his side. This is strange
not just because she didn't make the voyage with him, but because she's been dead for several years. Apparently, each passenger on the space station has had a "visitor," and persistent beings they are. Kelvin, spooked beyond belief, jettisons his "wife" in a pod (in one of many
references to 2001), only to find her beside him again the next morning. Kelvin decides to let her stay this time and soon sees it as an opportunity to correct mistakes he made in the past.

So far, this is similar to the original Solaris. What's different this time around is the total focus on Clooney's character. In Tarkovsky's version, the story centered on various characters on the ship as well as what might be happening back on earth and to the ship itself. In Soderbergh's version, our attention is solely on Clooney and the developing relationship with his "wife." This, of course, is in keeping with Hollywood's obsession for an individual character and his (almost always male) struggle/development. So instead of Tarkovsky's brilliant sequences around the ship, Soderbergh shoots almost exclusively in extreme closeups--Clooney's face and that of his wife (played by Natascha McElhone). Despite the screentime she receives, though, she's merely a cipher that allows Kelvin to work through his issues of memory and redemption.

If I sound disappointed by this, I am somewhat. Nonetheless, this is a much more accessible film for American audiences (it would be hard not to be), and the echoes of Sixth Sense will probably resonate for many. And certainly Soderbergh is a master craftsman, whose command of camera movement, lighting, and sound is brilliant. Having said that, though, this version still left me cold. Clooney doesn't quite have the depth to pull it off, and the film's conclusion is bizarre, New-Age wish fulfillment. Like many adventurous science fiction films of the last two years (think AI and Minority Report), this is an ambitious movie that comes up short.  

 J. Robert Parks  11/30/2002



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