Solaris (2002): **½
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
I thought they stopped making movies like this back in the 70s. You see, as much as I love these two films, Star Wars in 1977 and Alien in 1979 effectively killed off the "heady" Science Fiction film. After them, almost every Sci-Fi film was either a space opera in the vein of Star Wars or a horror movie that just happened to take place in a Sci-Fi setting. Gone were the days of 2001, Silent Running, THX 1138, and even Farehneit 451. There are of course rare exceptions, like the recent Gattaca.
Solaris is like a throwback to those days. It's wonderfully constructed and directed by Steven Soderbergh. He didn't get nominated for best director of 2001 for two movies (and won for Traffic) for nothing. He's a fantastic director, and here doing his own cinematography and combining it with the great, old-school haunting score of Cliff Martinez, Soderbergh has managed to skillfully create that dreamy and yet sterile world of Sci-Fi from the 60s and 70s. Even the design of the planet Solaris itself is dreamy and evocative, like some sort of a bad trip. The film moves slowly, deliberatly, calmly, but is driven by a deep, rumbling tension. There are no action scenes, not even a punch is thrown.
Soderbergh has managed to get a raw, emotional performance out of Cluny, free from the Cluny mannerisms that made him a star. He gets quite the opposite performance out of Jeremy Davies, who's natural mannerisms have been exaggerated to the extreme here. Viola Davis is bristling with a hysteria that is barely contained by fierce, almost fanatic self-discipline. A few times throughout the movie she states firmly and almost violently that she wants to "win" the plot in this movie. Natascha McElhone (from The Truman Show and Ronin) as Cluny's sometimes dead wife is unnaturally beautiful with her too-large eyes and fantastic bone structure, which is perfect for the part of the remembered wife.
Soderbergh is great. All the actors and performances are great. Why did I give this movie only two-and-a-half stars, then? Becuase if you've seen as many Sci-Fi movies as I have, and have read as many Sci-Fi books as I have, this movie offers absolutely no new ideas. It doesn't even have a new angle on an old ideas; the way it's constructed it purposefully takes no sides in the ethical dillemmas raised by the ideas. That kind of disappointed me. Why don't filmmakers ever take stands in situations like this and let thier movies say what they belive? What does Soderbergh feel is right and wrong in this situation? We'll never know. I saw this with my mother, and she complained it was "too predictable." I have to agree. There are a couple of "mysteries" which I had to consciously try to not solve so as not to spoil the "surprise" revelations. There are also a number of mysteries left unsolved, but that's fine in a movie like this (especially one that ends like this).
This movie seemed like it was trying to be a balancing act between being a heady visceral experience and telling an actual story. It did really well at the first but not the second; I loved the way it was made, but not what happened in it.
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