“How far would you go for a second chance?” asks the TV blurb for “Solaris.” It’s apparently a good distance for writer-director Steven Soderbergh, who’s expended considerable effort on a new version of Stanislaw Lem’s cult-favorite novel, which was first filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. The Russian film gave a brooding, hypnotic quality to Lem’s existentialist take on reality, illusion, free will and fate, but at 165 minutes it was undeniably fatiguing–often mesmerizing but also ostentatiously arty; like its source, it’s achieved cult status, but would hardly be considered popular in the true sense. Soderbergh’s take on the material is over an hour shorter than Tarkovsky’s, but, with its excruciatingly slow pace and lack of contrast, it’s no less pretentious and seems positively endless. The filmmaker was doubtlessly striving for another “2001,” but what he’s achieved is more like “Mission to Mars II.” Kubrick could use deliberation to create a haunting sense of inevitability; neither Soderbergh nor De Palma, by comparison, can muster anything beyond arbitrary turgidity.
The mystery at the center of the story remains the same. In the near future Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), a psychologist despondent over the recent suicide of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), is summoned to a space station orbiting the eponymous planet to deal with a crisis occurring there. He arrives to find most of the crew dead; only stern but frightened Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis), who’s locked herself in her cabin, and flamboyantly weird, jittery Snow (Jeremy Davies) remain, neither of them willing or able to explain why the mission has turned so sour. Soon Kelvin discovers the cause through personal experience, however: after dreaming of his late spouse, he awakes to find her beside him for real–or what seems like real. It turns out that all the members of the original crew had undergone something similar, and were unable to deal with it. The remainder of the film investigates, in an elliptical, enigmatic fashion, the cause of the phenomenon, and examines the grief-stricken, guilt-ridden Kelvin’s inability to let the new Rheya go, despite her increasing concern that she doesn’t belong there.
Where Soderbergh’s treatment of the piece differs from the book and the earlier film is his greater relative emphasis on depicting the relationship between Kelvin and his wife, which is sketched in the initial portion of the picture and then expanded in repeated flashbacks throughout. The shift doesn’t humanize the film much, though, since the cold, antiseptic mood favored by the director extends to the personal side of things as well as the futuristic settings. “Solaris” is in every respect a chilly, remote, emotionally distant piece, with a bafflingly unnecessary and unsatisfying concluding twist that makes it resemble not so much an episode of “The Twilight Zone” as one of “The Outer Limits”–and then not of the good old black-and-white series, but of the much inferior contemporary revival of it.
Of course, the picture has been elegantly made–Soderbergh’s cinematography (he serves as his own cameraman under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) is carefully judged, and the design team has done a good job, though a less imaginative one than might have been expected. The sound contribution is exceptional too, with Cliff Martinez providing a highly unusual score. As Kelvin, Clooney is on screen virtually throughout, and he gives an earnest performance, but one that’s too obviously effortful to conceal the weakness of the material and Soderbergh’s leaden direction; McElhone works similarly hard, but never achieves much more than a statuesque presence. Davies, on the other hand, is encouraged to fuss and fumble to such an extent that Snow becomes an annoying bag of ticks, and Davis can’t bring the solemn Gardon to life. No one else in the cast has much more than a walk-on.
“Solaris” is a bad movie–rest assured, I’m not just imagining that–and, along with “Full Frontal,” represents the second misfire in a row for Soderbergh. It’s so dull that its tagline should be: “In space, no one can hear you snore.”