Solaris, Steven Soderbergh’s sleekly austere sci-fi mind bender, is a movie that exists primarily to shine a spotlight on its own integrity. A loose remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s soporific 1972 Russian epic (both are based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel), the movie, in its perverse way, fits snugly into the Hollywood bean counter’s corrupt view of the universe — namely, that there are two kinds of movies: big, accessible, popular entertainments and small, ”elite” films doomed to commercial oblivion. When a celebrated filmmaker begins to think that way, it can be a convoluted form of self-sabotage (and self-glorification). Snail-paced, suavely shot, and steeped in postmodern melancholy, ”Solaris” is like ”2001: A Space Odyssey” directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Soderbergh is making a movie, all right, but more than that he?s flaunting his cred, his power as a hip industry player helping to position a quasi-obscure ’70s-style art film in the thick of the holiday/Oscar rush. It’s as if he wanted us to think, Is this guy a cool industry rebel or what?
The irony is that Soderbergh, in essence, has come up with a plodding and far less psychologically arresting version of ”Ghost.” Set in the murky dystopic future, ”Solaris” casts George Clooney as Chris Kelvin, a lonely psychologist who is ordered by some vague corporate-political nexus to travel out to the space station ”Prometheus” and rectify a mission gone mysteriously haywire. Most of the crew has disappeared, as if the beast from ”Alien” had already been through and eaten dinner. But once Kelvin comes onboard the satellite station, with its vast mechanical network of catwalks (the set looks like it was built out of the world’s biggest Erector set), he encounters two strangely obsessed survivors: fearful, intense Gordon (Viola Davis) and jittery, spaced-out Snow (Jeremy Davies). More tellingly, Kelvin discovers his beautiful wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), who appears before him in his sleep chamber. He’s deeply grateful to see her, considering she killed herself several years before. Has Rheya truly come back to life? Or is she a figment of Kelvin’s memory, a pod replicant, or somehow both at once — a metaphysical projection brought on by Solaris, the gassy purple-pink planet below? The movie treats this mystery as if it were rife with significance, especially when Kelvin, haunted by Rheya’s death, becomes possessed by the notion that it’s actually her, alive and returned to him. He seems to be the only person on screen who doesn’t get that he’s stuck in an utterly conventional science-fiction predicament.
As ”Solaris” goes on, we get flashback glimpses of Kelvin’s marriage: how he and Rheya flirted, embraced naked in the dark, and began to come apart. The movie wants to be a poetic evocation of Loss, but since the relationship, as shown, remains naggingly sketchy and abstract, it’s hard to work up much feeling over its demise, or its restoration. McElhone is certainly someone to pine for — there are depths to her apple-cheeked sculptural beauty — but Clooney may be too swank an actor to suffer this moodily. He is, rather, the perfect poster idol for a film that serves up romantic tragedy as stylishly cryptic solemnity chic.