Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

And Oscar shall have no dominion: Natascha McElhone and George Clooney in 'Solaris'
Twentieth Century Fox

The best science fiction proffers tangible questions about faith and reality--the opposites of science and fiction, respectively. With enough hindsight and honest scrutiny, we might say that every Star Wars movie pretty much sucks, if only because the saga itself lacks that kind of truly inquisitive spirit: Maybe the Force is a metaphor for psychospiritual transcendence; maybe it's just a convenient way to keep Obi-Wan in the script. Either way, what we're left with in the end is another costumed good-versus-evil bout, our view of the plainclothes world beyond the theater remaining largely unchallenged.

Solaris, on the other hand, is worth seeing, and not just because George Clooney's bare ass is on view in more than one sequence. Based on the novel by Polish-born sci-fi scribe Stanislaw Lem (and preceded by Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 screen version), this carefully tempered space flick scores another win for writer-director Steven Soderbergh regardless of how it's received by the CGI-alien-loving set. Its assets include a lean cast and screenplay, simmering suspense, elegant cinematography, sharp production design, a nicely nuanced score by Cliff Martinez, and a laudable performance by Clooney's upper half. Better yet, it builds toward the kind of metaphysically loaded climax that will leave you with more savory questions than "Where did we park?"

Judging from the premise alone, you'd be forgiven for dismissing Solaris as Bradbury-meets-Roddenberry redux: In the not-too-distant future, skilled psychologist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) is sent to investigate mysterious happenings at an all-but-abandoned space station near the planet Solaris. He arrives to discover neatly bagged corpses, ambiguous bloodstains, and a skeleton crew driven to delirium by an elusive form of otherworldly intelligence. In due time, it's apparent that this alien presence can read and manifest unspoken human thoughts, regrets, and desires; accordingly, Kelvin's knotty relationship with his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) takes on greater weight than your average earthly flashback.

From the film's first ambiguous moments, Soderbergh plots a patient and cautious course, steering clear of the abundant sci-fi clichés in his path. He offers up high-tech set pieces well-suited to a plausible future, but without the gratuitous technical details most Trekkies demand. He keeps us concerned and curious about each narrative twist but never nudges us with omniscient warnings. He teases our brains, but not with cheap riddles for armchair quantum physicists. He stays invested throughout in the fundamental human feelings at hand, defogging typical outer-space intrigue to reveal a story about love, mortality, and the very real limitations on what human beings can know about themselves and their universe.

There's a lot to distinguish Solaris from Blade Runner, but the similarities are worth noting. Clooney's stoic reserve and detached voiceovers bear shades of Harrison Ford's Deckard, and the methodical electronic score by Soderbergh cohort (and ex-Captain Beefheart drummer) Martinez provides an ambient texture akin to Vangelis's 20-year-old synth work. Both films make earnest figure eights around the eternal question of what makes us who we are. Yet there's enough signature Soderbergh in the overall execution here (pause-laden dialogue, darkened interiors, arty establishing shots) to keep the auteur's fan club happy.

Keen and economical as the work may be, this is ultimately an act of adaptation that puts author Lem right next to Soderbergh in the receiving line. Like Kurt Vonnegut and Phillip K. Dick, Lem is known to genre buffs as a well-rounded writer capable of melding imaginative future-tense scenarios with social and philosophical matters that resonate in the present. Sadly, Hollywood has yet to get a Vonnegut story right. (Breakfast of Champions plus Bruce Willis equals bomb.) Blade Runner was a winning Dick interpretation, although another Best Director honoree named Steven recently wrecked that author's Minority Report in the third act.

But if we're really gonna toss Spielberg into the laundry load of comparisons here, Solaris would be better held up alongside last year's A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Without giving too much away, Clooney's Solaris character is forced to wrestle with the reality-bending consequences of love; the same could be said of A.I.'s Frances O'Connor, who puzzles over her feelings for an android son. She's a better actor, but Clooney has got more to prove, and it's gratifying to see him reach beyond his usual coy mugging. While he and McElhone don't always create the most convincing two-way chemistry, both demonstrate a solid understanding of the story's emotional foundation. Their capable performances help Soderbergh achieve a heartier conclusion than Spielberg's (and with a running time that's shorter by 40 minutes).

With the studios trotting out their home-stretch Academy Award hopefuls, Solaris isn't what you'd call a serious contender--to its credit. For all its rich suspense, heady themes, and aesthetic tact, it's neither revolutionary nor commercial enough to register on that scale. Oscar historically hates outer space anyway. At the very least, trophy-waving dork James Cameron--a co-producer on Solaris--takes a small, overdue step toward redeeming himself among seekers of sci-fi with substance.

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