The smart sci-fi fan knows that, technically, Steven Soderbergh's Solaris is not a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's film at all, but rather a newly filmed interpretation of a Polish novel penned by Stanislaw Lem. Nonetheless, the new film stands in a mighty big shadow. If someone attempted to make a new Wizard of Oz, for instance, or Gone With the Wind, they could claim that they were merely re-adapting the book, but no director could hope to fully escape the memory of the landmark interpretations by cinematic predecessors.
Tarkovsky's version, though well-respected, gets a bad rap these days: It's commonplace even among critics who should know better to deride it as incomprehensible and boring, though it is neither -- merely lengthy and Russian, which scares some people off. True, it's laden with symbolism, but you need not even pay attention to that; there's a story going throughout its nearly three-hour length. You want boring, go to the chapters in Lem's book that forget about the characters and endlessly describe the fictional speculative physics of the imaginary ocean planet of the title.
Both Tarkovsky and Soderbergh wisely play down the geek techno-babble to focus on the dilemma of Kris, or Chris (George Clooney), a psychiatrist sent from a mundane future Earth to a space station orbiting Solaris, where weird stuff -- no one will say exactly what -- has been happening. In this new telling, Chris is sent to bring back the remaining crew members safe and sane. He himself is questionable in the latter category, brooding endlessly over his dead wife, Rheya (The Truman Show's Natascha McElhone, way less cute than Natalya Bondarchuk but definitely scarier). So when Rheya shows up alive in his space-station bunk the next morning, well, that could really throw off a fella's equilibrium.
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Flinging her out into space only works temporarily, as she's back in the sack the next morning. Chris does as most men would and gets his groove on (that old standby "Can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em" literally holds true here). Meanwhile, we get a look back at how he originally met the real Rheya, and the incident that split them -- though it's telling, and relevant to the plot, that he doesn't remember much about the deterioration of the relationship.
At this summer's San Diego Comicon, producer James Cameron promised that this Solaris would resonate with "anyone who's ever been in a relationship." Not that the typical Comicon attendee would know from experience, necessarily, but the resonance here seems forced, mainly because we know so little about the principals: He's a shrink who doesn't believe in God and knows exactly one Dylan Thomas poem by heart ("And Death Shall Have No Dominion," naturally), and she has an English accent, gets moody sometimes and in one scene carries a doorknob around for no particular reason. More is needed if we are to feel the vicarious ache of longing. A longer cut allegedly exists with a possible DVD future; both Soderbergh and Cameron loved it but decided that audiences would think it was boring. They should have had more faith; the flick's "different" enough to alienate mainstream crowds as it is, so why not go all out?
As for the supporting characters -- Jeremy Davies, reprising his Million Dollar Hotel schizo shtick as loopy Dr. Snow, Soderbergh regular Viola Davis as uptight Dr. Gordon, German actor Ulrich Tukur as Chris's deceased best friend -- they get little screen time and less analysis (and Clooney's so obviously older than Davies and Davis that he seems like a dad lecturing the kiddies in all their scenes together). The movie runs about an hour and a half, which isn't enough to give them more than one-note appearances in the background of the love story, which also moves a touch too briskly: The Rheya clone figures things out very quickly, and she is kind enough to explain it all to us, thus demonstrating that she can't possibly be real, as no human is likely to be so objectively self-analytical, especially if she's busy faithfully copying someone who was a mess to begin with.
For all its flaws, though, Solaris is a good try and a definite improvement over the dull remakes Soderbergh's been sleepwalking through lately. Longtime fans will be pleased to know that the director is back to his old stylistic tricks -- jumping back and forth in time, overlapping sounds from the previous scene and shooting the backs of people's heads in close-up. Like Tim Burton remaking Planet of the Apes, Soderbergh's keenly aware that the original film's ending was one hell of a suckerpunch, and he's tried to come up with a new twist (the book has no real ending; it simply stops without full closure). At first he pulls it off, but ultimately, he doesn't quite get away with it. What should feel transcendent instead plays like a cheat, but that's mainly because he never fully invested us in the romance angle.