Solaris review by Mike Long

Do you have a catchphrase that you use at the end of a movie, such as "That was awesome!" or "Man, did that suck?". Or perhaps you use my favorite, "That was the greatest movie ever made!". But, have you ever finished a film and that uttered, "Well, now I know why that flopped."? That's what I said after I watched Solaris. It's clear that this film is aimed squarely at a very small segment of the viewing audience. If you like for the stories in your movies to be tied up in a neat package, then avoid Solaris at all costs, for things definitely aren't tied up. I'm not even sure if there is a package.

In Solaris, George Clooney stars as psychotherapist Chris Kelvin. Kelvin receives an urgent message from his friend Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), who is aboard a spaceship which is orbiting the planet Solaris. In the message, Gibarian states that something has gone wrong, and that Kelvin must come to Solaris immediately. Once Kelvin reaches the orbiting spaceship, he finds only two surviving people on-board, Snow (Jeremy Davies), a very nervous young man, and Dr. Helen Gordon (Viola Davis), who refuses to leave her quarters. Neither can adequately explain what went wrong with the mission. When Kelvin goes to sleep that night (is there night in space?), he dreams of his late wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), only to awaken to find her lying beside him. Where did she come from? This Rheya has a few memories of her prior life, but can't really remember who she is. Gordon claims that Rheya isn't human and must be destroyed. But, how can Kelvin watch the only woman that he's ever loved die a second time?

For the most part, I don't have any problem with a film having an ambiguous ending. Sometimes it can be fun to strike up a "What did that mean?" conversation with your fellow viewers. But, when a film, such as Solaris, has an ambiguous beginning, middle, and finale, then I have trouble. From the above synopsis, it's clear that the film has a plot. But, writer/director Steven Sorderbergh never goes much further than this basic premise, leaving many, many questions unanswered. There's nothing wrong with asking the viewer to fill in some of the blanks. Actually, I wish that more films did this. (Note to directors: If we see the character getting into a car and than arriving somewhere, we really don't need to see footage of them driving.) But Solaris asks the viewer to fill in practically every blank. We've all seen a film where an event may or may not have occurred -- this whole film is that way. Actually, I may have dreamt the whole thing.

In combination with this subtle story, Soderbergh has given the film a very odd style. This is a very quiet film, as there are many long passages with no dialogue, which are usually accompanied by long takes. When the score by Cliff Martinez comes in, it is very noticeable and effective (although, some may find it annoying). There are many scenes where the characters sit motionless, contemplating the situation. The result is that much of the film is quite boring. The side-effect of this is that it allows the mind of the viewer to begin wandering. I haven't seen the 1972 version of Solaris or read the Stanislaw Lem source novel, but I did find myself thinking about 2001 and Event Horizon a great deal. While Event Horizon is a flawed, but fun film, and I've never been crazy about 2001, I began wishing that I was watching either of those films instead of Solaris. Also, Clooney lives up to his character's name by giving a very cold performance. He doesn't show a great deal of emotion over his wife's return and that doesn't help draw the viewer into the film.

To Soderbergh's credit, Solaris is certainly a nice-looking film. Shot in widescreen, Soderbergh uses every inch of the frame, never giving in to those who want to keep things in the "TV Safe" area. The spaceship looks fantastic and the shots of the Solaris planet are very convincing. Also, I really liked the simplicity of the grocery store scene, in which Soderbergh keeps his characters in hard focus, as the background isn't important. But, his technical achievements are undermined by the flaws in the film. There's nothing wrong with experimenting with style in a film, but I don't think that a $50 million science fiction film is the place to do it.

Solaris lights up DVD courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is incredibly sharp and clear, as the picture shows virtually no grain and no defects from the source material. The detailed grillwork of the spaceship's interior does create some video noise at times, but that's the only truly noticeable flaw. If one looks closely, there are some artifacting remnants at times, but this is really nothing to quilbble over. The disc features a spectacular Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, which brings the film's unique sound design to the fore. The dialogue is always clear and audible. Even with all of the silent passages in the film, there is no hint of hissing or distortion. As noted above, the silence is often interrupted by music or other sounds, but these come through cleanly, with no disintegration of the dynamic range. The surround sound and subwoofer effects are very subtle, but effective. I was quite surprised that there wasn't a DTS track on this disc, but the Dolby track is still good.

The DVD contains only a few extra features. We start with an audio commentary from writer/director Steven Soderbergh and producer James Cameron. I wasn't sure what to expect from this commentary, but it's much more laid back that I thought it would be. These two certainly get along well here, and talk in-depth throughout the film. They give a great deal of information about the shooting of the film, but don't offer much insight into what they think the film is about. They throw in some interpretations at times, but there are moments when Soderbergh admits that the film is very opening to multiple readings. One thing that is clear is that Cameron is very proud of the movie. Next, we have two featurettes which are quite similar. "HBO Special: Inside Solaris" (13 minutes) offers a slew of clips from the film along with some behind-the-scene footage and interviews with the cast and crew. "Solaris: Behind the Planet" (17 minutes) includes some of the same interview and behind-the-scenes footage, but offers more in-depth information about the making of the film, including an overview of how the sets were constructed. The DVD includes both the theatrical teaser and the theatrical trailer for Solaris. Finally, one can view the film's screenplay using the DVD remote control.

Solaris is one of those films where pundits will label detractors as unintelligent. I like intelligent films and Solaris definitely falls into that category. The film raises some great philosophical questions and gives the viewer much to ponder. But, it is also too much of a blank slate, and the bulk of the film is simply boring. The teaming of Cameron and Soderbergh is an exciting one and I hope they work together again...on a really simple film.

5 out of 10 Jackasses

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