Is this Fox's sneaky way of drawing a mass audience to a brooding art film? After all, Solaris is also a space movie without aliens and a ghost story without a ghost. If viewers are expecting a big-budget popcorn thriller rather than a meticulously crafted treatise on death, memory and the transcendence of romance, they're in for a kick in the proverbial butt.
Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a psychiatrist still mourning his wife's suicide years before who is unexpectedly sent into space to investigate the fate of a ship's crew that stopped communicating with Earth as it orbited the planet Solaris. Upon arriving, Kelvin finds one crew member dead, one missing, and the remaining two (Viola Davis and scene-stealer Jeremy Davies) severely shell-shocked. When he tries to interrogate them about what happened, they simply tell Kelvin to go to sleep.
Sure enough, the next morning he wakes to the familiar caress of his suddenly not-dead wife, Rheya, played by ravishing Brit Natascha McElhone (The Truman Show, Mrs. Dalloway). Kelvin desperately wants a second chance to save Rheya, both for her sake and for selfish reasons--he's a lonely guy who's been loveless for too long. At the same time, part of him knows this is somehow a figment of his imagination. The question is, can Kelvin deliberately suppress his doubts about the how and why of Rheya's return to restore marital bliss?
Whereas Soderbergh's last film, Full Frontal, was an improvised affair of jagged handheld camera shots and quickly scribbled dialogue, Solaris shows the calculated precision of a symphony. Soderbergh tells his story partly with colors, balancing sorrowful blues of the space station and wintry greens of Kelvin's widowerhood with the rich reds of his romantic memories. The camerawork, which Soderbergh once again performed himself, along with editing and scriptwriting (an otherwise unheard-of undertaking for a studio picture), is fixed almost exclusively on Kelvin's weathered gaze, using a limited depth of field to filter out most of what lies beyond. It's easy to be cynical about close-ups for a movie star of Clooney's rank, but Soderbergh knows that for all the limitlessness of space, this drama is confined to the frontiers of Kelvin's mind.
Based on a 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris was previously adapted to the screen by legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. While the stories are identical on the surface, Tarkovsky's film was a metaphor for Christianity amid the atheistic Marxist state. That's not what Soderbergh and Clooney are going for. The new Solaris is as close in spirit to Ghost or Groundhog Day as to Tarkovsky's film or 2001: A Space Odyssey, its other apparent precursor. But like Tarkovsky's film, this Solaris is ultimately about a leap of faith. Cold and pensive as it is, Soderbergh's film ponders the ragged emotional terrain of romance and the opportunity for a second chance beyond life's physical borders--except, of course, the physical border of Clooney's backside.