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2002, 20th Century Fox
George Clooney, Natascha McElhone
Steven Soderbergh
MPAA Rating:
[PG-13] sexuality, nudity, language, violence
Science Fiction/Drama
99 minutes

On a space station orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris, a psychologist (Clooney) tackles personal and philosophical issues when he is visited by an entity who appears to be his dead wife (McElhone).

What's Good
a unique departure from the science fiction standard
has some thoughtful issues at the heart of its story

What's Bad
fails to adequately address its philosophical points
goes out of its way to be vague, boring, and "artsy"
melodramatic dialogue
second-rate performances and irritating characters

Reviewer: Andrew Manning (December 2002)

When a film is both universally praised by critics and unanimously reviled by audiences, it is likely the movie actually lies somewhere between the extremes of amazing and atrocious. Such is the case with Solaris, a film that is neither the brilliant, thoughtful masterpiece the critics claim, nor the festering pile of garbage from which casual moviegoers are fleeing.

Based on the 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris is set in a vague, futuristic world in which interstellar travel has become a matter of course. When the crew of a space station orbiting the enigmatic planet of Solaris begin to experience strange phenomenon, renowned psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is called in to assess the situation. But shortly after his arrival, the doctor discovers that he is not immune to the mysterious effects which have been described as "Solaris reacting to the crew." The result is a visitation by an entity who appears to be his wife (Natascha McElhone), who has been dead for some time.

Despite its setting and plot, Solaris is not a sci-fi horror film. It is a metaphysical tale of second chances, and an abstract love story that weighs the free will of man against the concept of pre-determined fate. Unfortunately, the movie fails to effectively convey the critical themes of the novel, and seems to proudly promote two glaring faults.

The first flaw is the intentional--almost hostile--lack of focus. The story goes out of its way to be aloof, eliciting attention more by the promise of something happening rather than something actually happening. The movie drifts along, dragging the viewer through time and space on a hazy journey. When it bothers to directly present some of its issues, it does so in an abruptly pompous and preachy fashion: the characters start arguing about the nature of God. Yeah, I'm sure everyone loves a boring, aimless arthouse flick that is intentionally evasive, then beats its audience over the head with its snobbish two cents on theology before slinking back into ambiguity.

The second flaw is the mindnumbingly horrid acting. Dialogue spills out with all the melodrama of a second-rate soap opera--a tedious one in which virtually nothing happens. In an early scene, one character says, "I apologize if it seems melodramatic," then proceeds to crown himself the Drama Queen. Elsewhere, Kelvin and his wife are quoting recurring poetry in a cheap attempt to make their relationship seem somehow genuine and romantic.

Clooney and McElhone exhibit all the passion of soggy cardboard, and the two scientists on Solaris are experiments in viewer irritation. The female scientist babbles verbose answers full of technical jargon, only to quickly retreat into vague nonsense when she gets close to saying anything useful. It's a cheap way to build suspense. If she can discuss psychotropic compounds and obsessive compulsive disorder with fair coherency, why can't she just explain, "We're seeing dead people up in this motherf***er!" when asked simply, "What's happening here?" Meanwhile, the male scientist, a poster boy for Stoner U, talks like Beavis and Butt-head's hippie teacher Mr. Van Driessen hooked up to a marijuana IV.

Solaris scores points for daring to break away from the pack, and for attempting to present a love story with unusual depth. But what seems intriguing on paper isn't always so once it makes it to the big screen, especially under the burden of poor execution. If you're going to make a "thinking man's" film that alienates the public at large, then at least have the foresight to avoid amateurish dialogue delivered by feeble performances.

Rating: 5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)

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