A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Solaris (2002)

August 20, 2010


George Clooney is Chris Kelvin: action space psychiatrist! Except not so much with the action. And not so much with the psychiatry either. Tonight we pulled another psychological space thriller from our stacks. Again it is one that neither I nor Amanda have seen. I bought it because I like high-concept sci-fi and George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, even though the reviews I read of it when it was in the theaters were fair to middling.

I’ll start with my initial impressions. The movie takes place in a Blade Runner inspired future where it is always raining on Earth. Seriously. It is ALWAYS raining. This isn’t a plot point in the story or even commented on by any of the characters. It’s just a fact about Earth in this movie. There are plenty of futuristic fashions, but most of them are raincoats of one sort or another. I think perhaps there’s some great significance to this one little detail that evades me. Perhaps Steven is saying that the Earth of this movie is a dream-world to begin with. Maybe the Earth depicted here is just Chris’ memories of Earth, and he always remembers things as raining. I don’t know.

The movie is very much about memories and their one-sided and flawed nature. Chris is a successful but lonely psychiatrist who fills his life with work because his personal life is so empty. This is quickly and deftly established with a few sparse scenes of him at work and at home. Waking up alone. Running a group therapy session. Calling a patient on the phone. Clooney’s performance manages to tell us quite a lot about Chris with almost no dialog.

Then Chris is visited by a pair of corporate goons working for a DBA, a company that is funding the analysis of a stellar phenomenon called Solaris, and is shown a video of one of the people on this mission who implores him to come to the station. Something has gone very wrong, and Gibarian, who is an old friend of Chris and knows precisely why Chris is the man he is today, thinks that Chris’ expertise, and his history, are the key to fixing things on the Solaris base.

So off Chris goes to Solaris, where he finds Gibarian already dead, and only two crew members remaining alive. Snow and Gordon. Jeremy Davies channels Dennis Hopper in his portrayal of Snow. It’s all crazy eyes, acting with his hands and unfinished sentences. Gordon, played powerfully and passionately by Viola Davis, is clearly still rational, if paranoid. Oh, and there’s a mysterious kid running around on the base as well.

Then Chris drifts off to sleep, dreams of his dead wife, and wakes up to find her in his locked quarters on the starship. At first he’s terrified and confused. He lures her into an escape pod (somehow) and shoots her off into space. But she soon shows up again, and he becomes obsessed with her return. He’s been torturing himself for years, you see, about the circumstances of her death, and having her with him again drives him a little insane.

Of course this couldn’t be his real wife. She’s dead and he knows it. Even she, the reincarnated Rheya, knows that she’s not real. There’s a dissonance in her memories. She doesn’t know how she came to be on the Solaris station. Eventually she even remembers her own death.

This is probably the most fascinating issue in the movie. Probably the central issue. The plight of a being which at first thinks that it is a human, but becomes aware over time that it is something else. A construct based on the memories or dreams of a human. It’s a pretty bleak existence for the pseudo Rheya, since the memories she is constructed from are so tinged by Chris’ guilt.

Sadly, with such a wealth of powerful and interesting fodder for thought, this movie falls a little flat. Part of the problem is that Chris, as a character, is so broken right from the very beginning. If he were able, through the course of the movie, to find some resolution or closure in the matter of the death of his wife perhaps it would work, but he doesn’t. In fact he ultimately finds whatever the polar opposite of closure is. What this means for the plot of the film is that his journey to Solaris base is ultimately futile. He never exercises his established profession, never psychoanalyses anybody, and seems pretty dim regarding his own deliberate blindness to what is going on. The conclusion of the movie and the resolution of matters at Solaris is entirely in the hands of Gordon, and I have the feeling that she would have taken all the exact same actions without Chris being there at all. (I like a powerful female character who isn’t afraid to take matters into her own hands. Maybe Gordon should have been the lead character.)

The other problem with the movie is also its biggest strength. The tone of the entire work, as put together by Steven Soderbergh, is so staid, so contemplative and so existential that it’s very hard to become emotionally involved with any of the characters. I appreciated the movie as a work of un-Hollywood film-making. It revels in not being anything you’d expect from a sci-fi film. It’s all slow movements, soft focus and quiet, gentle, almost soothing music. There is not a single thing resembling an action scene. Which I like, as an exercise in atypical movie direction. But the effect is that watching this movie is like reading a philosophy paper. It’s interesting, but dry. It makes your mind work, but it doesn’t get your juices flowing. Combined with the sort of non-resolution at the end of the film it made me feel a little empty after watching it.

It makes me a little sad. There’s a lot of artistry here. Great performances, fascinating direction, and source material that fills the brain with interesting questions. So why do I feel so unfulfilled after having watched it? I’ll have to read the book now to see if the source material handles things differently.

August 20, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , ,


  1. Also check out the 1972 version by Andrei Tarkovsky.

    Comment by David | August 20, 2010 | Reply

    • Oh, it’s on the list. We’ve actually got quite a lengthy list of movies we want to purchase for the project. We can say with certainty that we have more than a year remaining.

      Comment by tanatoes | August 21, 2010 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: