Steven Soderbergh is nothing if not adventurous. His body of work encompasses everything from "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich" to "Kafka" and "King of the Hill." His new film is a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 version of Stanislaw Lem's science-fiction novel, in which a planet, Solaris, exerts a strange power over the crew of a space station sent from earth to observe it.
Set at an unnamed time in the future, "Solaris" is the story of Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), a psychologist with psychic baggage of his own, sent to the space station because the crew has sent back strange messages and now refuses to return to earth. Chris's baggage is that his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) committed suicide some time ago, and Chris has been unable to deal with all of its implications. He arrives at the space station - and let us be grateful that Soderbergh doesn't weigh down his film with technical details of how and when and where, nor does he do the Kubrick thing of identifying every gadget we might possibly be interested in - to find that only two of the crew are left alive.
And then, on the space station, Chris wakes up to find his wife with him. But something is awry: she is herself, but contains only his memories of her; she knows only what he knows of her. But she is real enough to help him recapture his love of her. So the question becomes whether or not to abandon her and return to earth, or stay with this reconstructed memory, something that apparently Solaris has created in him.
The two crew members are Dr. Helen Gordon (Viola Davis), smart and realistic about what's happening, and technician Snow (Jeremy Davies in a fascinating performance that's all expressive hand-waving and sidelong glances), who points out that Solaris seems to be drawing the space station closer and closer to itself. And the planet is not what we think of in, for example, "Star Trek." It is amorphous, undefined, with pinks and yellows that give it a kind of strange, almost sun-like glow.
It is all a fascinating premise, and there are moments of power in the film, but Soderbergh has failed to give it a script worthy of the idea. The bedtime encounters between Chris and his wife seem needlessly repetitive (he would no doubt say that's the point, except that he made the point early and just has no place to take it subsequently). So little is said, by anyone, anywhere in this film, that it seems more like an outline for a movie than a movie itself. It's as though Soderbergh wrote out a treatment and then decided that that would be the film. It was no doubt brave, but in the event sadly misguided.
And we find a distance between ourselves and Chris Kelvin. I admire Clooney greatly for attempting this, but he is more a star than an actor. I don't mean that as a putdown, but his emotive range is limited and his performance here is monotonous when it should be evocative of an emotional life that came to a premature end when his wife died. The fact that Chris is a psychologist and was unable to heal her, is taken too much for granted here; had Soderbergh written more, and Clooney given us more, it could have been a shattering experience for the audience. Instead, we are bored by the rehearsing of what we already know.
Soderbergh has lit the space station in shades of blue and cool white, with earth and the memories of earth coming in richer browns and flesh colors. It's the kind of subtle decision that enriches the subtext of the film as you think about it in retrospect. In fact everything here is no doubt exactly the way he intended it, quietly but totally in control. I simply wish that he had written a richer and more interesting film.