SOLARIS - DVD review

...because of the way that Soderbergh makes movies, the 2002 'Solaris' seems bereft of heft and lacking in mystery.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Note: Feng wrote everything except for Puccio's portion of the primary review.

The Film According to Eddie:
Polish writer Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris" is considered to be one of the most important science fiction novels written after the 1950s. The book inspired Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film adaptation of the same name (available on DVD in Region 1 from The Criterion Collection). Being the science fiction advocate and intellectual that he is, James Cameron ("Titanic", "Terminator 2") secured the rights to re-adapt Lem's novel. However, when fellow Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic", "Ocean's Eleven") called about directing the piece, Cameron decided to be only a producer of the project.

In "Solaris" (2002), Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) travels from Earth to the Solaris space station in order to determine whether or not the station's mission should be terminated. Most of the station's crew died before Kelvin is beckoned to Solaris by an old friend of his. Kelvin discovers two surviving members of the crew--Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davis)--who seem shell-shocked by their experiences. Kelvin soon discovers the problem that has been plaguing the crew when he wakes up from his first night of sleep. While he was dreaming, the planet Solaris absorbed his thoughts and re-manifested his wife (who committed suicide a few years before the time of the story). The rest of the movie deals with Kelvin's reactions to different versions of his wife being sent to him by Solaris as well as how the crew deals with the Solaris problem.

The new film version of "Solaris" is much warmer and much shorter than Tarkovsky's version. It also develops the central love story--that of the main character for his memories of his wife--better than the 1972 version. The Soderbergh/Cameron collaboration also gets to and makes its points with few delays, unlike the Tarkovsky effort.

However, because of the way that Soderbergh makes movies, the 2002 "Solaris" seems bereft of heft and lacking in mystery. While it's not ponderous, it's still very slow and difficult to absorb because you sit there wondering why a bunch of (supposedly) intelligent characters aren't doing anything about their collective dilemma. Instead, we get a couple of token arguments that don't lead anywhere because of their circular nature. I'm sure that the people who made this movie thought that they were making an open-ended piece that could lead to serious discussions about the metaphysical, but like "The Matrix Reloaded", the kinds of questions that "Solaris" raises are self-masturbatory at best. Also, in a movie lacking in "something happening", the actors needed to have shouldered additional responsibilities in ensuring our interest. Instead, poor George Clooney has to do almost all of the heavy lifting by himself since both Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis are rather bad. Davies uses a number of distracting tics that don't fit the rest of the movie, and Davis is content with receding into the shadows rather than contributing a presence.

On balance, I have to report that there are a number of things in "Solaris" to admire and even to like. For example, George Clooney shows how much of a great actor that he can be when he stops mugging and trying to be a charming guy with his "face angled downwards with eyes peeking upwards and mouth grinning sheepishly" look. Natascha McElhone, a bright spot in movies like "The Truman Show" and "Ronin", also does a great job of playing different versions of Rheya. The production design looks about as handsome, evocative, and believably realistic as you could desire from a science fiction film. I also really enjoyed the flashbacks and dream sequences that depict Chris and Rheya's relationship during happy times.

However, none of the film's positive attributes generated enough goodwill for me to recommend it to anyone. Despite asking "big" questions about the nature of humanity (done much better in Steven Spielberg's "A.I."), "Solaris" is ultimately too slight of a work to be worth noticing. It's not a bad movie, but it's far from engrossing.

The Film According to John:
I found the movie a typically "English-teacher" subject; that is, one with lots of questions and no concrete answers, the kind of material that's fun to discuss with thirty people in a classroom, people who are either all confused by it so wander aimlessly in their reactions or who know exactly what it "means" and aren't shy to let everyone else in on their secret knowledge, sudden expertise, and intellectual brilliance.

Talk about slow; at least "2001" gave you something to look at and listen to when not a lot of action was happening. "Solaris" seems dead in the water; glum people staring at one another rather than discussing or analyzing or reasoning. The movie's lack of focus and dead-end questions seem pretentious, too. It's as though the filmmakers really thought they knew what it was all about, but I'm betting Soderbergh had no more clue than most audiences.

I suppose it would be fun for a while to see our thoughts come to life in real flesh and blood, but to impose on these hallucinations various possible metaphors about life and death and why we're here and the whole meaning of existence seems stretching a point. Still, if the film gets people to think at all, I suppose that's the main thing--if they can stay awake long enough to get through it.

It's hard to imagine that Fox used to be the creator of the worst DVD video transfers available since its video transfers are so good these days. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen picture on the "Solaris" DVD is gorgeous. I didn't see any damage to the source print, nor did I see any problems that could've been introduced during the compression-and-authoring stage. However, I can't quite give the video transfer a "10" rating because, during some sequences, I noticed that the top part of the image was darker than the rest of the frame, appearing as if the cameras lenses were partially "lidded" (try to imagine what your eyes see when you're tired and your eyelids feel heavy). I know that this could've resulted from an artistic decision, but if the effect is intentional, then I have to declare it to be a rather stupid and ill-serving one.

Even though "Solaris" is a science fiction film, it really functions as an interior drama rather than as an extravaganza. Therefore, the Dolby Digital 5.1 English track has little to do in terms of sending fancy effects to the rear surround speakers. There isn't a lot of bass since the film is a rather quiet one. Other than clearly-reproduced dialogue and a sometimes-lively music score, the primary audio track doesn't do anything special.

The DVD also includes a DD 2.0 surround English, a DD 2.0 surround Spanish, and a DD 2.0 surround French track.

Optional English and Spanish subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.

As "Solaris" did not do well commercially in movie theatres during the fall of 2002, Fox did not see fit to give the movie a special edition treatment for its first DVD outing. Most of the bonuses on the DVD are the kind of standard-issue items that were made for the film's theatrical release anyway.

The HBO "making of" featurette is basically an extended trailer for the film with filmmakers delivering statements about how "wonderful" and "talented" everyone else is. The "‘Solaris'": Behind the Planet" featurette offers mostly shot-on-the-set video footage that was pieced together without much attention to its form. Therefore, we get little context about what we're watching. One of the featurettes (I forget which one) does offer a gem though--footage of George Clooney mocking Jessica Alba's "Got Milk?" ad (the one with the actress kneeling on a pair of slippers because her über-expensive pants weren't supposed to touch the floor. (James Cameron, the producer of "Solaris", was one of the creators of "Dark Angel", starring Jessica Alba.)

The DVD offers a reproduction of the film's screenplay, and you can flip through text page after text page with your remote control button. There are also four trailers--two for "Solaris", one for the upcoming "Master and Commander", and one for the upcoming "Le Divorce".

I've saved the best extra for last--the audio commentary by director Steven Soderbergh and producer James Cameron. While the two don't address the film's shortcomings (either in terms of its artistic achievements or in terms of its box-office implosion), I found it enjoyable listening to the two filmmakers discuss ideas and inspirations for the project. There are some funny anecdotes, too, especially towards the end of the film. For example, Soderbergh and Cameron start talking about the kinds of fonts used for opening and closing credits, and you know that they're just letting their inner geeks climb into the open.

My review copy of "Solaris" didn't come with any inserts or booklets, though I'm sure that commercially-available copies of the DVD will have at least an insert with chapter listings printed on it.

Film Value:
Director Steven Soderbergh usually goes for minimalism--the exception being "Traffic"--but his use of minimalism seems to be motivated by a desire to seek form rather than to seek function. Therefore, movies like "Erin Brockovich" and "Solaris" feel "empty" for the sake of emptiness rather than for the sake of thematics. (Notice how Soderbergh won an Oscar for "Traffic", the most ambitious, epic, and least minimalist of his recent efforts.) At any rate, "Solaris" only confirms my suspicions--that Soderbergh is the most overrated director of today.


Film Value