What’s the biggest difference between Soderbergh’s adaptation of the 1961 cult novel by Stanislaw Lem and the 1972 version directed by Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky? ”Well, it’s not nine hours long,” jokes Clooney. Tarkovsky’s cineast-adored sci-fi epic — which actually clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes — only feels nine hours long, given the late auteur’s penchant for long, lingering shots of pond water, snorting horses, and highway traffic.
Soderbergh’s remake is…well, we wish we knew; the director declined to be interviewed. ”Steven always described it as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ meets ‘Last Tango in Paris,”’ says Jim Gianopulos, chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment. (You mean, lots of zero-gravity sex involving sticks of butter? ”Well,” laughs Gianopulos, ”I think he meant that euphemistically.”)
But here’s the basic plot: Strange and deadly things are happening aboard a space station orbiting Solaris, a possibly sentient planet that may be playing mind games with its observers. Clooney plays a widower psychologist sent to check things out — and incredibly gets a second chance at love with his late wife, McElhone (”The Truman Show”).
”Titanic”’s James Cameron had long considered directing but stepped aside when Soderbergh expressed interest. (He remains as a producer.) The ”Traffic” Oscar winner finished his screenplay as he was wrapping last year’s ”Ocean’s Eleven” and sent it out to a number of actors, including Daniel Day-Lewis, but not to his ”Ocean’s” star Clooney. So the actor wrote him a letter. ”He’s my partner, and I had to write him a letter,” says Clooney, who with Soderbergh runs the Warner Bros.-based production company Section Eight (also responsible for October’s smaller-scale ”Welcome to Collinwood”). ”I said, ‘Look: I would love to take a crack at it, but only if you think I can do it.’ And he basically said: ‘What the f—? Let’s try.”’
The film was shot over the summer in just two months — pretty quick for a sci-fi flick. ”We have huge sets but very few special-effects shots. Anybody going into this wanting to see ‘Alien3’ is going to be surprised,” says Clooney. ”It’s not an ‘art film.’ But it is a film for everyone in that it’s a well-made, well-told story.”
THE LOWDOWN ”Not an art film” will be good news for those turned off by Soderbergh’s ”Full Frontal.” Then again, brainy sci-fi doesn’t always play well with audiences (see: ”A.I.”).