Directed by the man who brought us Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven. Produced by the helmer of Aliens and Titanic. Based on a Polish sci-fi novel, which was adapted into a two-and-a-half-hour ponderthon by Andrei Tarkovsky back in 1972. Given the mixed pedigree, is it any surprise Solaris turned out to be such a strange beast, one that 20th Century Fox’s marketing department found so difficult to tame, it had to turn to George Clooney’s on-screen arse-flashing to try and sell the movie.
Not really. The real surprise is that Clooney exposes himself in a different way, jettisoning his trademark charms (the head-tilting, the eye-twinkling, the lop-sided smirking) to deliver a raw, under-the-skin performance.
Holding the screen for pretty much the entire running time, Clooney plays emotionally bruised psychologist Dr Chris Kelvin, who’s sent to the Prometheus, a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, after the scientists on board inexplicably terminate all communication with Earth. When he arrives he finds corpses, several blood stains, two twitchy survivors and, strangest of all, his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Who died back on Earth several years earlier...
Steven Soderbergh (who, as well as writing and directing, employs himself as editor and cinematographer) ensures that the unfolding story is as much a sublime work of art as a deep-space mystery. And if that sounds horrifically pretentious, we defy anyone to not be transfixed by Kelvin’s arrival scene. Here, we see his ship silently glide above Solaris to dock with the Prometheus, while Cliff Martinez’s haunting, hypnotic score thrums from the speakers. Below, cloud formations of blue and purple pulsate across the planet’s surface as a lattice of lightning dances gracefully above them.
It’s reminiscent of the patterns that play across the inside of your eyelids while drifting off to sleep, and maybe that’s deliberate: Soderbergh regularly shifts the action from the space station to flashbacks, hallucinations or dreams (it’s never entirely obvious which), while some of the most important events occur as Kelvin sleeps.
Throughout, Soderbergh makes it clear that Solaris isn’t necessarily a mystery that needs to be, or even should be, solved. As one character poignantly puts it: “There are no answers, only choices.” And this is where the movie really becomes challenging. Whether you treat it as a ghost story, a metaphysical romance or a philosophical investigation into the nature of memory and perception, it will either enwrap you entirely or eject you into the cold, dark reaches of confusion. But, given the emotional intensity and convincing complexity of Clooney’s and McElhone’s performances, Solaris should resonate.
In short, come the end credits, you will either be shrugging your shoulders or blubbing your eyes out. Us? We cried like babies...