Solaris (review)

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How to Get Your Girlfriend to an SF Movie

A friend of mine is, very sadly, in a mixed marriage: He’s a geek. His wife is not. She cares nothing for Harry Potter; nada for The Lord of the Rings. But Solaris, I told him, is a movie they can share, a science fiction movie for people who don’t like science fiction, a movie to demonstrate that science fiction can really be about people, honestly.

If that doesn’t work, he — and all the other men in the same situation, who would like to share their geeky movies with their nongeek significant others — can just tell her than this is the movie that features George Clooney’s naked butt.
I don’t mean to trivialize Solaris, not in the least. This is a beautiful, underplayed film about loss and about how the human acceptance of it is a result of nothing more or less than a knocking about the head with the reality stick. We lose something or, more likely, someone, and eventually the fact of its or their absence sinks in and there can be no further denying of the fact. But what if it or they could return to us somehow? Wouldn’t we revel in the wonderful fantasy that we’d never suffered the loss in the first place? What could be more human than that?

Dr. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney: Welcome to Collinwood, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is a psychologist who is at least familiar with the concept of being unable to let go of grief. As the film opens, he’s hosting a group session in which its participants discuss some unnamed disaster — one member hates coming across TV or Internet stories about the whatever that happened, and can’t stand seeing “commemorative t-shirts”; another, conversely, can’t really seem to let it sink in no matter how often she comes across reminders of it. The obvious 9/11 parallels remind us that grief doesn’t just have to be for a person but could be for a place or a time of innocence. And it could be seen as a warning: The emotionally fragile may wish to consider before entering any further, lest this devastating exploration of grief be too personally devastating.

Soon, Chris is on his way to a remote space station, Prometheus, orbiting the planet Solaris, where the station’s staff of researchers has mysteriously cut off all contact with Earth. All those geek guys should reassure their gals that even though space stations and spaceships and spacesuits are involved, there is nothing terrifyingly technological here — director Steven Soderbergh (Full Frontal, Ocean’s Eleven), adapting Stanislaw Lem’s novel, is apparently not a fan of gadgets. And so his near future is a comfortingly familiar place, one we could almost reach out and touch. No one wears funny spandex uniforms; the computers look mostly like something on your desk right now; Prometheus looks like a slightly more spacious version of space station Alpha, which is orbiting 234 miles above your head right now and might even be featured on tonight’s 11 o’clock news in the Those Wacky Scientists segment.

In other words: this is real stuff. There are no toys to get your head around.

The stuff you’ll need to get your head around is people stuff: The planet Solaris — all swirly color and tendrils of energy licking off into space — is somehow messing with the minds of everyone on Prometheus, including, now, Chris. Why a planet might do such a thing, or how, is never explained. Solaris is really science fantasy, as is most of what is labeled science fiction, and if that is what it takes to get your nongeek friend into the movies with you, call it that. What Solaris is, under its just-barely-scientific framework, is a ghost story. For how Solaris messes with Chris’s mind is this: It reproduces in the flesh — oh, definitely in the flesh — Chris’s recently dead and dearly, dearly beloved wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Ronin). She’s just next to him one morning in his bunk on the station. He freaks, of course, and then he calms down, and then things get really interesting.

Has Clooney always been a better actor than he’s let on, or has he just not had the opportunity to show it off like he does here? We saw him spread his comedic wings in O Brother; now he gives an emotional, sensitive drama his all. He sucks us into Chris’s confusion and desire as he tries to be logical about the situation and, later, as he lets himself knowingly slide into a full-blown embracing of the fantasy. She’s not really Rheya, he knows in his head, but does his heart (and the rest of his body) mind? We may scoff at his descent into semimadness, as does one of the two remaining station staffers, Helen Gordon (the wonderfully steely Viola Davis: Far from Heaven, Kate & Leopold), who wants nothing but to destroy the Rheya thing and get all of them — the humans, that is — the hell out of there. (The other researcher, Snow [Jeremy Davies: Secretary, CQ] has his own brand of madness to contend with and leaves Chris to it.) Or we may see Chris as only slightly more delusional than most people are when they fall in love.

It can’t end well — but you already knew that.

Okay, so Solaris is about love, and loss, and learning to deal with it (or not), and George Clooney’s naked butt. It’s romantic and sexy as hell, and appropriately tragic. If you can’t get your gal into this movie, guys, there may be something wrong with you.

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