Movie Review: Solaris (2002), My First Netflix Movie

My wife Abby and I had only been married a couple of months when, for Christmas 2004, her daughter Chele bought us a subscription to Netflix. At the time, the Netflix model was to send you three movies on DVD to watch at your leisure, then each time you returned a movie in the prepaid envelope, they’d send you another based on a list you made on their website.

Will somebody please get George Clooney a towel?
Will somebody please get George Clooney a towel?

Among our first movies was Solaris, the 2002 version by Steven Soderbergh. (I don’t recall the other two). We based this choice on the idea that we would pick movies we thought we’d both like, and we had both liked Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape from 1989, and liked at least some of Ocean’s Eleven.

Solaris is beautiful film. The photography is spectacular, and, in most aspects, offers realistic depictions of an epic space adventure, and the score by Cliff Martinez is both off-scale amazing and definitely unusual.

The scene of Chris Kelvin, played by George Clooney, arriving at Solaris in the Athena is possibly one of the most elegant, beautiful, and engaging in the history of science fiction. I have watched that scene over and over, and it’s amazing.

I love all the actors and all the performances; George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies, and Ulrich Tukur. It was well-cast, and well-acted.

I wish I could say the whole movie is amazing.

We start with Kelvin, a psychologist, living in a bleak, unfriendly near-future city. He trods around in the rain and gloom, quietly, woodenly dealing with his patients, obviously unhappy. The only reason given at that point is McElhone’s voice saying, “Chris, don’t you love me any more?”

Early in the movie we seem to hear characters refer to the psychological fallout from 9/11 in a way that doesn’t age well, with Kelvin’s patients saying they saw something that “took them back” to that day, “like a commemorative t-shirt or something on the web.”

Mysterious representatives arrive to deliver a video message from Gibarian, a friend of Kelvin’s, in the fashion of a 1960s French espionage movie: they let us know that they’re not going to let us know much. Gibarian’s message is even less clear: “I need you to come to Solaris, Chris,” but at this point, we don’t yet know if Solaris is a galaxy, a code name for a new video game, or a brothel.

The representatives call it a “ship,” but we learn in the next scene that it’s a space station, not a ship.

Kelvin boards the station, finds a blood trail, and discovers his friend Gibarian is dead. He is then lead by the sound of Insane Clown Posse’s Riddle Box to a crew member named Snow.

Sidebar: when naming your characters, find a way to make their names clear. When someone says, “I’m looking for Snow,” is he looking for a ski lodge? Even when Kelvin finds him, all he says is, “Snow.” Is he asking for a line of blow? Maybe a better way to write would be, “Are you Snow?”

Riddle Box and the eccentric performance of Jeremy Davies bluntly suggest he has gone at least a little insane during his stay on Solaris.

Snow tells Kelvin that “security forces showed up” and killed a crew member named Coutard, but we never get any more information about how many in the security force, and what happened to them. Kelvin asks Snow point blank, “Can you tell me what’s happening here?” but Snow is completely evasive in his answer: “I could tell you what’s happening, but I don’t know if that would tell you what’s really happening.”

As we move along the slow-paced plot line, we see shots of the space station and out its windows showing Solaris, which looks more like a star than a planet. One of the trailers, obviously made early in the production schedule, shows it as ocean, but in the movie, it seems like a blue supergiant star with giant prominences.

We never really get an explanation about what Solaris is.

Kelvin finds the commander, Dr. Gordon, who, like everyone so far in the movie, is completely evasive about what is going on, saying, “Until it starts happening to you, there’s really no point in talking about it.”

And what is happening? I appreciate letting an audience uncover and figure out a mystery, but this narrative is just being difficult. Very gradually, we find out that each crew member is seeing and interacting with “visitors.”

We never get to see Dr. Gordon’s visitor, but based on the noises coming from her quarters early in the movie, and just who I am, I think it might not be a person at all, but a beloved pet.

From Kelvin’s dreams and memories, we flash back to a time when he was falling in love with and marrying McElhone’s character Rheya. All the scenes on Solaris are toned in cold blues, and all the flashback scenes are very warm-toned. Obvious, but effective.

Sure, okay, fine, we’re orbiting an enigmatic stellar body. But where the movie fails is (spoilers) that Solaris turns out to be a stellar or planetary dream weaver ad/or wish machine that lets, or forces, crew members to interact with their absent loved ones. Magic. Fairy dust. Feel good. As one of the trailers says, “How far will you go for a second chance?”

As the movie progresses and Kelvin interacts with Rheya, Solaris seems to turn from blue to pink. I know this is supposed to represent something, but the symbolism is nebulous at best. More dreams, more memories, more awareness? Or is Solaris expressing a change in gender? Maybe we’re just meant to think it is changing.

Misdirected scene: when Kelvin first wakes up to discover his apparently alive dead wife there in the room with him, he leaps up and runs to the other side of the room, facing away from her, slapping himself in the head, then slowly bracing himself with both hands and finally looking up at her. But no human in history has ever reacted to a potential threat or radical unknown in this manner. He might fight or flight, but the way he played it, it isn’t consistent with human reaction to surprise.

Martinez might be the real star of this movie. Between the way he is so gentle in the musical narrative of Kelvin and Rheya falling in love, to the urgency of the idea they need to hurry up and board the Agena and go home, it stands as one of the most unusual and convincing musical narratives ever.

Some of the “science” is just technobabble nonsense…

“Are they or are then not made of subatomic matter?” Everything is made up of subatomic matter.

“Solaris has been taking on mass exponentially.” From what?

And, of course, our characters use too much power, which leads to a crisis with a deadline.

And the punch line of the movie doesn’t live up to even the little hope we built as we watched. Loud noises, blinking lights, Solaris kind of swallowing the space station. Then, Kelvin is back at home, which is probably supposed to be in Solaris dream space, kissing his alive dead wife. The end.

Okay, okay, sure, I should read the book. Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe it’s even stupider than this movie.

But, I keep putting the DVD back in and watching it, despite all its flaws. The ultimate saving grace for Solaris is that it is beautiful. My favorite quote from the movie, which translates so well into real life, is, “There are no answers, only choices.”

Sometimes love is so strong it can pad a 44 minute script into an hour and a half.
Sometimes love is so strong it can pad a 44 minute script into an hour and a half.

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