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Solaris (R)
20th Century Fox
Official Site
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Producers: James Cameron, Rae Sanchini, Jon Landau
Written by: Steven Soderbergh; from the novel by Stanislav Lem
Cast: George Clooney, Natasha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies

Rating: out of 5

It is cold on the space station Prometheus, where those aboard suffer almost as excruciating a punishment as the construct’s namesake. The station is all metal and glass, a steely tomb that encases a world full of death and delusion—outside, the purplish planet Solaris burns with a kind of mystical light, while inside, life remains at a glacial standstill.

But the cold is no more pervasive on that mysterious ship than it is on Earth, at least for Chris Kelvin (Clooney), a psychiatrist brought in to investigate the bizarre goings-on aboard Prometheus. His life on terra firma consists of icy train rides to and from his empty apartment, where he watches raindrops haphazardly streak across his bedroom window. For Kelvin, Prometheus is a relief: It’s a ready-made hell, an escape from the mental prison he has erected for himself on Earth. The dead lay locked in coffins, the living in memories.

For Kelvin, the specter of his long-dead wife, Rheya (McElhone), is inescapable. She was beautiful and brilliant, an intoxicating mixture of fire and ice, who attains perfection through her husband’s fuzzy, melancholy recollections. He finds the request to probe Prometheus an inviting one, as if memories evaporate as soon as one leaves the troposphere. He arrives only to find that his good friend and mission commander Gibarian has committed suicide, and that the two remaining crew members (Davis and Davies) are exhibiting signs of extreme paranoia.

And while all signs point to sci-fi suspense, director Steven Soderbergh wisely sidesteps the impulse to drench each frame in blood, mimicking the Tarkovsky adaptation by utilizing Solaris simply as a setting, not a plot point. Solaris doesn’t give us macabre extraterrestrials à la Alien—what makes the film intelligent, daring, and downright spooky is its knowledge that the only bogeymen who can hurt us are the apparitions existing within our own minds.

The planet Solaris draws on these phantasms, forcing them out of the psyche and into the real world. Asleep aboard Prometheus, Kelvin wakes up to find his wife beside him, her arms wrapped around him as if she had never left. He is awarded a second chance at love, but can the past be revisited when our minds have so substantially reshaped it?

Solaris uses Kelvin’s memory as a blueprint in its construction of Rheya, but it is unable to fill in the gaps, the parts of her he never knew or understood. “It’s the puppet’s dream, being human,” utters one character, and Kelvin begins to comprehend that the wife he sees before him is nothing more than a toy, her actions manipulated by his will: She’s a pre-Blue Fairy Pinocchio.

What’s interesting is that faux-Rheya begins to question the validity of her existence as well. She understands that she is nothing more than a photocopy of Kelvin’s dead wife, and therefore has no real memory or feelings about their life together—her sad realization makes us wonder if the people we love are merely substitutions for ones we have lost. Solaris is an often eerie, always thoughtful meditation on the slipperiness of human actuality, and how well one person can truly know another. “There are no answers, only choices,” says the suicidal Gibarian. For the characters in Solaris, only death brings an understanding of life.

— Erin Steele


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