A review of “Solaris” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: * 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for mature themes

Run Time: 1 hour, 38 minutes



Steven Soderbergh is officially two for two this year (remember “Full Frontal”?) with this surprisingly dull adaptation of the classic 1961 science-fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem.

“Solaris” stirs up memories of an adult slumber party thrown in honor of my 40th birthday.  Anxious to celebrate the unveiling of my new media room, I chose “Alien” for the flagship screening.  Woozy with wine and song, my guests were struggling to stay awake in the wee hours during Ridley Scott’s long, painstakingly perfect space scenarios. I recalled that delightful evening while fending off sleep during “Solaris”.

Miscast George Clooney stars as Chris Kelvin, a down-to-earth psychologist who is forced into service aboard the space station Prometheus when best friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) sends a communiqué rife with fearful desperation.

Once aboard the Prometheus, Kelvin discovers Gibrarian dead of a suicide, and the two surviving scientists (Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis as Snow and Gordon) exhibiting signs of extreme stress and paranoia, ostensibly due to their examination of the orbiting planet Solaris.  Kelvin’s exploration turns personal when the specter of his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) arrives on the scene, seemingly full of life and ready to pick up where she left off several years previously.

While seeking contaminants of psychotropic compounds, Kelvin tussles with his emotions regarding the real-life vision of his non-real wife.  Long pregnant pauses and a sparse narrative are broken up by dreamy visuals of drifting, shifting clouds, while Kelvin muses the pros and cons of permanently reuniting with his phantom spouse. Yawn. 

What was Soderbergh trying to achieve with “Solaris”?  Malevolent aliens, awe-inspiring space battles and CG-created creatures are no-shows, which is a very good thing indeed. The story’s abstract nature slinks towards the profound, but doesn’t even begin to thoroughly communicate its primary themes of obsessive passion or eternal forgiveness. 

I love George Clooney dearly, but this role does not suit him.  Kelvin’s character requires an actor with edge, angst, and a dark side that lingers just beneath the surface.  Kelvin’s emotions – guilt, fear, culpability -  are conveyed solely through the eyes, but Clooney’s charm relies on his sheer physicality.  McElhone is utterly unlikable; I didn’t believe the couple’s ardor for a split second. 

Narrative rests of the philosophical premise of the Dylan Thomas poem, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”.  Heady stuff, but at Soderbergh’s hands, frankly my dear I don’t give a damn.