What is more beautiful than the one who has gone away? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, fantasy forgives, desire embellishes. Sentiments like these lie at the heart of Solaris, Steven Soderbergh's marital drama in a science-fiction setting. It's more "Scenes from an Intergalactic Marriage" than a revisiting of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's novel, with Soderbergh's usual take on female-male relationships as being essentially parasitic. Soderbergh's Solaris, which draws notably from Tarkovsky's script with only a modest credit to its current rights holders, is a different beast from the Russian master's fatiguing 165-minute version.
In reviews of Soderbergh's Solaris, countless comparisons are being made to the earlier picture, which has just been reissued in a comprehensive Criterion DVD edition. Tarkovsky quests for the spiritual in his handful of films. With 2002's Solaris, it comes down to a chilly skepticism about relationships that reigns in so much of Soderbergh's work, the eternal, inviolable unknowability of another.
Solaris, measured in its pacing, begins in a future Chicago of Blade Runner foreboding, a site of gleaming horizontals, indirect lighting and sluicing gray rain. The place of memory is a place of rain, the place of dreaming is drowned. Rain falls like tears, a vale of translucence, shimmering like a Conrad Hall daydream.
Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a psychiatrist whose troubled wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) died a few years before the story begins; he's still steeped in his private funk. A space station named Prometheus, circling the watery planet Solaris, has cut off communication with Earth, and a cryptic video dispatch to Kelvin insists he's the only person who can right what's wrong. Once he's on the ship, after meeting the two remaining scientists on board (Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis) hallucinations are the order of the day, including one of his late wife, who can recall only what parts of her life her husband knew. "I'm not the person I remember," this apparition insists.
The production design is doleful, abundant in its cool dread. (Note Rheya's first appearance on a train, a black handprint shimmering on a transparent divider as she leaves Kelvin's sight.) The prolific Soderbergh is a hands-on, breakneck auteur, but also a superlative director of photography, with astonishingly beautiful, metallically gleaming cinematography, much like the 35mm "fictional" portions of Full Frontal.
Darts of hate have been shot toward this sleek, dreamily paced film, such as the pitiless pissiness exhibited by critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader. Roger Ebert took from this Solaris much the same feelings I did, aligning it with Soderbergh's obsessions, yet other reviews have been rife with a manner of possessive, you-don't-know-art exclusionary attacks that seem removed from criticism, yet very near clubbiness. It almost seems a kind of Rorschach for critics, ascertaining canonical reverence versus a filmmaker's right to explore a text after their own fashion. (Should one never see a Hamlet after the first exposure, in high school or college?)
Rosenbaum describes the admittedly slow 95-minute film as "funereal," and goes on to describe Viola Davis, a vivid actress even when standing motionless, as "a PC replacement for a white male in the original." Ascribing authorial intentions is a dangerous thing: this is not that. Not Lem's, not Tarkovsky's, nor is it the sum of whatever flip remarks Clooney has made about the 1972 Solaris being a lesser Tarkovsky film to Entertainment Weekly or while sitting beside Soderbergh on The Charlie Rose Show. Perhaps it's the telegraphic quality that rankles some critics, epigrammatic declarations such as "We are in a situation beyond morality!"; "It's the puppet's dream, being human"; "There are no answers, only choices"; and "I'm suicidal because that's how you remember me!"
Soderbergh's film -- let's not even call it a "version" -- is earnest work. Its look is crisp, its actors striking. Jeremy Davies' discombobulated mannerist acting is freakish in its gestural specificity, and Clooney plays a man who stopped reacting after his wife died. McElhone, as a fantasy projection, is lit as a fantasy creature -- a human being Kelvin could never decipher, a woman he could only revere -- and in the process, find the substantial abyss in their relationship to be a source of irritation.
It was intriguing to see the rapt attention of the paying audience I saw the film with, a rare treat for a reviewer. "I could tell you what's happening, but I don't know that will tell you what's happening," Davies says early on. Even the sound design is muffling, distant, that of enplaned white noise, the soft yet damp sussuration of travel 30,000 feet or higher from earth's surface. Cliff Martinez's steel-drum echoic Steve Reich-like ache is one more strand of melancholy, one further swath of mood that makes Solaris closer to the work of Soderbegh colleague Mike Nichols than the mysticism of Tarkovsky or the frosty skepticism of Kubrick: the stubborn enigma in elusive riddles, the sorrow in the dream that is memory.