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Worth a Look: Solaris (2002)


 

Solaris

Four stars

Director: Steven Soderbergh, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem

Stars: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, and John Cho

With the opening scenes of “Solaris,” the mood is unquestionably somber. George Clooney plays Dr. Chris Kelvin, a psychiatrist who seems to be just going through the motions. One of the first scenes is him just sitting in bed alone. Many will recognize in his body language as one of those times where something weighs on our minds so heavily, it is a Herculean effort just to get up and begin the day.

Much of this film is shot in dark, muted colors to further enhance the overall tone. Make no mistake, science-fiction is the vehicle here. But this is a psychological/existential thriller, if we must assign labels.

Kelvin is visited by two strange men who are part of a private company that has taken over a mission from NASA. Kelvin’s friend, Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) and a small crew are aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Gibarian has sent a cryptic video message to Kelvin specifically, imploring him to come and help with a problem aboard the space station. The company the two men represent is studying the unique planet as a possible source of energy.

What we discover soon after Kelvin arrives aboard the station is that two crew members are dead, including Gibarian, and the remaining two crew members, Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Dr. Helen Gordon (Viola Davis) are unnerved by something. Gordon sequesters herself in her room and Snow is disconnected from reality. They are understandable reactions to something that defies comprehension.

The planet is able to somehow get into the minds of the crew. It intuits who is on the minds of crew members and then reproduces them in their corporeal form. We learn that each crew member has a “visitor.”

Kelvin isn’t immune from visitation. The first night aboard the station, he dreams of his deceased wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), and the first day they met at one of Gibarian’s parties. But as he dreams of making love to her not long after they first met, director Steven Soderbergh then intersperses the scenes at the party with short cuts of Rheya and Chris together on the ship. The suggestion here is that dream and reality become intertwined and Kelvin is delirious enough that he can’t tell the difference. At this point in the film, you have to wonder whether the planet is able to deliberately blur the distinction between the two.

When Chris wakes up and is coherent enough, he realizes that what he thought was a dream about making love to Rheya aboard the ship was real. Clooney’s looks of pure sorrow, grief and confusion are extraordinary. This was one of the first times I realized how good an actor Clooney could be.

Rheya can’t remember specifics about her life and her time together with Chris. The only things she seems to remember are the times she shares with him. She has no memories of her life before she met Chris.  She sees images in her mind, and they are familiar to her, but she can’t provide context to any of them. That’s because they are Chris’ memories, not hers. His memories have been transplanted into her mind.

She is self-aware, though. At one point she acknowledges she isn’t the person she remembers. At one point she asks him “don’t you love me anymore,” as if she knows something significant has happened between them but isn’t quite sure what.

Half-way through the film, I pondered why the planet would do this. Is it that the planet is actually a living being? If this space company goes about trying to harvest the planet for energy, does the planet do this as a defense mechanism to ward off any threats? It seems plausible. In one of the flashback scenes to Gibarian’s party, he mentions that the planet seems to react to being observed. Species have evolved to develop defense mechanisms to protect them from predators. If that is the case here, there is elegance in the simplicity of this defense mechanism as opposed to some sort of violent reaction.

Chris knows intellectually that this woman who looks, talks, and acts like his deceased wife can’t really be her. So he is left with a painful decision what to do about her and the rest of the crew. With this version of Rheya, we are left to question ourselves as to whether we really truly know someone even though we get very close to them.

“Solaris” doesn’t take any easy outs as it marches toward its conclusion. And as it approaches the end, I found myself really questioning the entity that was Solaris. The possibilities seemed to grow as the film wound down. I asked myself whether the planet itself had a consciousness or was it acting solely on instinct. And then I began to wonder if the planet was actually some sort of omnipotent being. I saw many similar existential/philosophical questions in another fantastic science-fiction film, “Arrival.”

Despite raising more questions for me than providing answers,  “Solaris” is a remarkable film with an ending that is open-ended but still satisfying.


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