"Solaris" was the much-hyped pairing of producer James Cameron (director of "Terminator", "Aliens", etc.) and director Steven Soderberg (director of "Ocean's 11", "Traffic", etc.) Despite strong reviews, audiences reacted indifferently, as the picture disappeared from theaters within a few weeks. The film suffered a similar fate to a similar movie - Andrew Niccol's "Gattaca", a similarly underplayed, intelligent and enjoyable sci-fi effort that disappeared from theaters quickly in 1997. "Gattaca" has eventually gained a cult following in the few years since its release and I believe that "Solaris", a movie that also explores human emotions in a compelling way (although not as much so as "Gattaca"), will eventually pull together a base of fans, as well.
"Solaris" stars George Clooney as psychologist Chris Kelvin, a man who recently lost his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Still attempting to recover, he receives a video communication from his friend, currently orbiting the planet Solaris. When he actually arrives at the space station, he finds only two survivors: the calm Snow (Jeremy Davies) and the paranoid Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis). Although he attempts to get information about what has happened out of the two survivors, they're not prepared to give up any information.
After falling asleep one night, Kelvin wakes up find that his wife is now lying next to him. Despite his efforts to convince himself otherwise, she is real and he's not in the midst of a dream. If she is real - who is she, what is she and where did she come from? Is the planet floating below materializing his thoughts and memories? Sending her away makes no difference, as she returns once again. Flashbacks appear to give us a further idea of the relationship that Kelvin and Rheya had.
This is really George Clooney's finest work. While I can't say it's quite Oscar-worthy, it's nevertheless a very good performance that carries the picture. Finally a Clooney that's not too cool for school, the actor really portrays the hurt, loss and melancholy required for the character surprisingly well. Natascha McElhone once again plays beautiful and mysterious well, and while her mystery doesn't always work, it's about as appropriate as can be for this picture. Despite the fact that Clooney and McElhone really don't seem like a match, Clooney's performance - several steps more subtle than anything he's done - is a good match for hers. Jeremy Davies plays another out-there character that gets annoying, but thankfully, he doesn't have much in the way of screen time.
Soderberg's "Solaris" succeeds for several reasons. Firstly, it's an understated picture - subtle to the point, however, that some may grow dismayed with the pace. Some may see it as the most costly ($47m) "art film" ever. Personally, I thought the film's quiet nature was haunting, mysterious, and allowed the film's questions about grief, guilt and other aspects of human nature and existence to slowly emerge instead of be presented in a heavy-handed fashion. Secondly, this is easily Soderberg's most technically superior film. The director, who almost always (aside from "Erin Brockovich") serves as his own cinematographer, has created a fascinating color palette for both the sterile looking scenes on the station and the warmer flashbacks. Production design also plays a major role in this film, which, despite being in the future, has a rather timeless appearance that I found fascinating. Soderberg the cinematographer offers some of his most interesting compositions, while continuing to know when to use handheld. The combination of the elegant, light score, the look of the picture and the light, quiet tone make for a dreamlike, surreal feel and tone that make the mystery at the core of the movie more involving.
I did not find Soderberg's "Solaris" (which was a remake of the 1979 picture, based on a novel) as compelling as "Gattaca"'s thought-provoking (and occasionally tense and thrilling) exploration of genetics and human desires, but it's still quite good. "Solaris", which clocks in at a little over 90 minutes, may have just needed a little more time in order to flesh out its ideas a little further. "Solaris" is certainly not going to be for everyone, but those in the mood for thoughtful and beautifully filmed sci-fi should at least consider a rental.
VIDEO: "Solaris" is presented by 20th Century Fox in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is an extremely pleasing transfer that is one of the finer recent works by Fox. Soderberg's cinematography and the film's stellar production design are portrayed well here, as sharpness and detail are impressive. Definition remains consistent, as the film never appears soft, while even fine detail in the background is often visible.
The presentation really didn't suffer from anything much in the way of flaws. A tiny bit of compression artifacts were visible once or twice, but that's about it. Edge enhancement did not appear, which certainly made for quite a pleasant viewing experience. The print appeared to be in tip-top shape, with nothing in the way of specks, marks or other faults.
The film's color palette, often bluish in the station and warmer in the flashbacks, is reproduced cleanly, with pleasing saturation and no concerns.
SOUND: "Solaris" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. There are instances of surround use for low-level ambient sounds (the hum of the machines on the ship, etc.) that is quite effective, but these kind of sounds are not always apparent. The score by Cliff Martinez is the main focus in the soundtrack for the majority of the movie; it receives some strong reinforcement from the surrounds, while also presented with a sound quality that is dynamic and remarkably clear. Dialogue is similar - it is unusually clear and easily understood.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Steven Soderberg and producer James Cameron. Certainly one of the most anticipated commentary tracks of the year, this track gives the opportunity for audiences to hear two of today's most respected filmmakers bounce ideas off of one another. Cameron, who I've always respected greatly as a filmmaker, has also always seemed quite serious in interviews and behind-the-scenes features. However, Cameron and Soderberg seem to be relaxed and informal as they chat about the making of the picture, occasionally joking about stories from the set and the film's well, lack of "action". Cameron starts off the commentary doing a little too much narration of the on-screen events, but after a while, the conversation gets into high gear and the two offer more informative and insightful discussion of the story, the production, casting, score, cinematography, effects and other aspects. This is a terrific commentary and well-worth a listen.
Also: "Behind The Planet", a 17-minute look at the production and aspects of it such as production design, story, casting, digital effects and cinematography; "Inside Solaris", a 13-minute promotional featurette that offers interviews and story details; teaser and theatrical trailers for "Solaris"; trailers for "Le Divorce" and the mega-budget Russell Crowe feature "Master and Commander". Finally, Steven Soderberg's entire screenplay is available as a series of text screens.
Final Thoughts: The quiet, subtle "Solaris" is not going to be everyone's cup-of-tea, but I found it to be a mysterious, involving drama that offered a very good performance from George Clooney. Fox's DVD offers a great commentary along with superb audio/video. Recommended for fans; others who are considering it should give it a try as a rental.
The Film *** 1/2