I spent a lot of the first 20 minutes or so of Solaris thinking that George Clooney (especially in this era of Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio and Owen Wilson) is what a movie star should be. I also spent a period of time admiring a set of bookshelves behind Clooney in one scene. And as the movie plodded on, I gave some thought to a new storm door, where to put a lamp I bought, the merits of an artificial Christmas tree and whether to make the breadcrumbs for the Thanksgiving turkey on Wednesday night or Thursday morning. It’s that kind of movie.
Solaris gives you a lot of time to think about other things — like how many tiles are in the ceiling of the No. 6 auditorium at the Carmike. For the record, Soderbergh’s latest is a remake — or reworking — of a 1972 Russian film that weighs in at 165 minutes. Soderbergh’s version is a scant 99 minutes by comparison, and it breezes past in what seems like no more than three hours. The hook for the film is — if you haven’t heard — that Clooney bares his butt for the camera. Well, he does — twice. And if that’s worth the price of admission to you, then I guess it’s a bargain. Otherwise, it’s a pretty grim affair that largely consists of people wandering around a sub-Kubrick space station and looking very unhappy.
The truly unfortunate thing is that the story is intriguing. The idea of a man going to investigate strange doings on a space station (which is made to sound as if it has more people on it than we ever run into) orbiting the planet Solaris and then finding himself face to face with his dead wife (Natascha McElhone, Fear Dot Com) is pretty solid, as is the idea that the wife is the projection of a resident of Solaris into a form Clooney’s character will find desirable. The idea has a lot going for it, especially when it gets down to dealing with the concept of the existence of people as themselves as opposed to the way in which we perceive them (that is, could we truly recreate a person, or merely our colored perception of them?). Sadly, the film never does more than touch on this. In fact, Solaris never really delves into much of any idea that it raises, making for a very strange movie-going experience. It’s an extremely slow-moving film that feels unfinished and rushed.
The film’s two other major characters — Snow (Jeremy Davies, Secretary) and Gordon (Viola Davis, Kate and Leopold) — both have their own projected encounters, but we never have much clue as to the reason for Snow’s projection, and we never even get a hint as to what Gordon’s was. Viewed another way, this shorthand approach might be in the film’s favor, since what little dialogue there is is, frankly, terrible; it all sounds forced, phony and contrived. It doesn’t help that — apart from the bizarre interjection of a flashback where Clooney and McElhone “meet cute” — the movie is utterly devoid of humor.
In Solaris’ favor, it does eschew many of the current trappings of the science-fiction film (except for picturing the Earth as a place where it’s always raining). The sets and the feel of the film are more like budget-conscious versions of 2001. There’s nary a hint of a haze of incense smoke, and the special effects have a pleasantly solid, old-fashioned look. It’s an interesting approach, nicely understated and effective in that it doesn’t swamp the proceedings with effects; but it’s all at the service of one of the dreariest movies in living memory — and one cursed by being both obvious (you see the ending coming a mile off) and vague.
By the film’s conclusion, I had definitely decided one thing: I’d wait till Thursday morning to make the breadcrumbs.