Launched on one of the more interesting careers in the history of cinema, Steven Soderbergh continues to go his own way with Solaris, a remake ' or should I say replicant? ' of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 head-scratcher. Thirty years is a long time in the movie business, and although Soderbergh covers the same ground as Tarkovsky, he does it in a more audience-friendly way. Tarkovsky's Solaris, which was based on a science-fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem, journeyed to the far reaches of outer and inner space, and it took its sweet time getting there. But how many of us have sat through all 165 minutes without lapsing into the occasional game of mental tic-tac-toe?
Interestingly enough, Soderbergh's abridged version manages to seem slow, deliberate, weighty ' all the qualities we associate with "serious" sci-fi. And George Clooney, who takes over the role of Chris Kelvin, a psychologist sent to the watery planet of Solaris to find out what the hell's going on, digs deep this time, tapping hidden reserves of pain. Anyone who loves Tarkovsky's Solaris ' and I know you're out there ' may be severely disappointed by Soderbergh's, which seems so commercial, so American, in comparison. But anyone with an open mind may notice that Soderbergh hits the same tragic notes of love and death, guilt and redemption.
Forswearing big-budget f/x, Soderbergh conjures up a purple-blue Solaris that looks like a tie-dyed T-shirt waving in the wind, but that doesn't keep the planet from insinuating itself into Kelvin's mind while he's sleeping in a nearby space station, then sending him a carbon copy of his dead wife. Natascha McElhone, who has some of Meryl Streep's off-center beauty, plays the "wife," and we can see why Kelvin might be tempted to abandon his mission and spend eternity making up for lost time. Easy on the eyes, Clooney and Davis help us pass the time, not least of all in the sex scenes, where Clooney bares his derriere. Fortunately, he also bares his soul, fighting back tears on numerous occasions.
Tears, rain, vast oceans ' Solaris is awash in H2O, which is meant to evoke the fluidity of consciousness. And those who haven't read Lem's novel or seen Tarkovsky's film may find themselves going down for the last time as Solaris engages in metaphysical speculation about reality, identity and whatnot. Jeremy Davies is aboard as a crew member who's gone around the bend a few times, and although Davies turns in an interesting performance ' doing all the acting with his hands, which try to grasp the truth from the air surrounding his head ' it may start to annoy you after a while. You realize that the movie's over as soon as anyone gives Kelvin a straight answer.
But nobody does. Nor does the movie give us a straight answer. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Tarkovsky was clearly responding to, Solaris is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, only instead of a monolith we get an entire planet. "If you keep thinking there's a solution, you'll die here," a crew member tells Kelvin late in the movie, and he might as well be looking at us when he says that. But for all its ambiguity, the thing isn't impenetrable. Soderbergh has sliced his way through the original's philosophical thickets, leaving us with an intergalactic love story that, like Solaris, insinuates itself into your mind. Then it heads straight for your heart.