Starring: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies
Director: Steven Soderberg
Not all successful directors are that prolific. Steven Soderbergh is bucking that trend with a string of hits – “Erin Brockovich”, “Traffic”, “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Solaris”. It’s now a case of checking your watch sometime in June and noting that it’s about time for a Soderbergh hit.
“Solaris” is set some time in the future although it is not specifically explained when it is. Chris Kelvin (Clooney – “Oceans Eleven”, “Intolerable Cruelty”, “The Perfect Storm”, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) is a psychologist who, for reasons unknown to us at the start, is going through something of a tough time. He is sent to a space station that is orbiting the planet Solaris to help investigate why several people on board have committed suicide.
When he gets there he finds two survivors, Snow (Davies – “Saving Private Ryan”, “Twister”) and Gordon (Davis – “Kate & Leopold”, “Traffic”, “Out of Sight”), both seeming unwilling to talk about what has happened on board.
But that night, he finds out why they are so freaked out. When in bed he is visited by his wife, Rheya (McElhone – “FeardotCom”, “Ronin”, “The Truman Show”), who had died on earth. When he tells Gordon she explains that everyone has experienced the same thing – a visit from someone in their past who has died and whom they miss. Solaris is reading minds and bringing the space stations inhabitants memories to life. Chris refuses to see it as a curse and embraces his wife’s return but Gordon tells him that Rheya is not human and that he must leave her behind when they return to earth.
It would be a mistake to focus too much on the plot and storyline of “Solaris”. Not that it’s weak but because the main strengths of the movie are in the performance of Clooney and the directorial class of Soderbergh.
Clooney has helped cultivate his image as a quality actor, not just through his role choices, but because he really can deliver on screen. In “Solaris” he plays the withdrawn and emotionally battered Chris Kelvin with total precision. We see his happier days during flashbacks and can easily plot the course of how he got from A to B. When his wife returns to his side on Solaris, he can finally make amends for his mistakes.
As a psychological tool, the practically empty space station is the ideal setting. Soderbergh uses long periods of silence to intensify the feeling of isolation, loss and grief and the perfectly placed flashbacks give us enough of the backbone of the story to understand just why Rheya’s return is so heart-wrenching for Chris. Clooney?s very screen presence is a great driver of those quieter moments on screen ? somewhat like Billy Bob Thornton?s turn in “The Man Who Wasn?t There”.
The mood is downbeat throughout. Even when the story focuses on Rheya and Chris and the setting switches to the outdoors, it’s always raining, tingeing their burgeoning love with an almost inevitable sadness.
The primary drive of the movie is Soderbergh?s study of the protagonist?s mental states. Snow is a consistently anxious individual. Gordon is intelligent and pragmatic but even her sound mind is shaken by events. Chris? emotions force him to discard his normally practical mindset and he behaves in a way he would discourage in his patients.
No, “Solaris” isn’t the be-all and end-all of psychological drama. But it is a strong and intriguing analysis of the mind, and how the heart can rule the head.