Solaris: Soderbergh's Remake of Tarkovsky's Masterpiece

Soderbergh’s Solaris is a semi-effective meditative sci-fi-psychological melodrama, starring George Clooney and Natascha MCElhone, based on the novel of the same title by the Polish writer Stanislav Lem.

For a while, James Cameron was attached to “Solaris.” In 2000, Soderbergh pitched his ideas to Cameron and Lightstorm producers Rae Sanchini and Jon Landau. Using both the 1972 film and the book as reference, the script allowed him to dig into new themes and subjects.

Soderbergh originally intended Daniel Day-Lewis to play the role of Chris Kelvin, but Day-Lewis was working on Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.”

Though ambitious and presumably closer to the literary source, the movie is inferior to Andrei Tarkovsky’s critically acclaimed 1972 film, which was itself preceded by a Soviet TV film of 1968. The end result is a dull, only intermittently involving picture, further marred by deliberate pacing, and displaying acting from reliable pros that unfortunately is never above the mediocre.

Set almost entirely on a space station orbiting Solaris, the confined, verbose drama benefits from some flashbacks to the previous experiences of its main characters, while on Earth. Dr. Chris Kelvin (Clooney), who struggles with Solaris’ motivation, and his own beliefs and memories, hopes for a second chance.

Opportunity knocks when Kelvin is approached by emissaries for DBA, a corporation operating a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, who relay a message sent from his scientist friend Dr. Gibarian (Ulrih Tukur). Gibarian requests Chris come to the station to help understand an unusual phenomenon. DBA is unsure how to proceed, as the mission to study Solaris has been sidetracked and none of the astronauts want to return home. Having lost contact with the security patrol, Chris agrees to a solo mission to Solaris as a last attempt to bring the crew home safely.

Upon arriving at the space station, Chris learns that Gibarian has committed suicide and most of the crew have either died or disappeared under bizarre circumstances. The surviving crew members, Snow and Dr. Gordon, are reluctant to offer any explanation. While alone, Chris dreams about his dead wife Rheya—how they first met and how they experienced their first romantic and intimate moments. Which explains why he is shocked to realize that is apparently alive again, lying beside him in bed.

Chris confides his actions to Snow, based on his knowledge that replicas of the crew’s loved ones have been mysteriously appearing. When Rheya manifests a second time Chris lets her stay, but she claims she is not human anymore. Her memories feel artificial, because she lacks the emotional attachment.

Gordon informs Rheya what Chris did to her previous replica. Rheya leaves the meeting horrified and Chris confronts Gordon, who chastises him for getting emotionally involved with something that isn’t real and may pose a threat to human beings.

During a dream, Chris questions a replica of Gibarian as to what Solaris’ motives are, but is told “there are no answers, only choices.” Chris wakes to find Rheya dead, having committed suicide, but he wills her back to a restored state. Gordon reveals that she has an apparatus which can destroy a replica but Chris objects to using it on Rheya. He begins ingesting a chemical stimulant to stay awake in order to monitor Rheya. Chris eventually falls asleep and Rheya approaches Gordon who destroys her with the apparatus. Chris confronts Gordon who maintains she merely facilitated in assisted suicide and that her xenophobia was a way to preserve the humans.

Chris and Gordon then discover the body of Snow in a ceiling vent and realize that Snow is a replica. Snow explains that he was attacked by his creator and thus killed the ‘original Snow’ in self-defense. The Snow replica tells them that the ship has been drained of fuel cell reactor, making a return trip to Earth impossible.

Gordon and Chris begin prepping a smaller space vehicle called Athena to escape. Chris is shown pondering his experiences from the space station back on Earth, discontentedly concluding that the reason Rheya’s replica wanted to die was because he “remembered her wrong”—as suicidal. One day he cuts his finger while chopping vegetables, but the wound heals, just as Rheya’s replica once did. Then Rheya appears, claiming that they transcend life and death and that all they’ve done to each other is forgiven. Is Chris really on Earth? Chris never leaves the space station with Gordon: he sends her off alone and stays behind to plummet into Solaris.

Aiming for a cerebral sci-fi of ideas, rather than a mythic one based on special effects (like “Star Wars”), Soderbergh was praised for his honorable, spare effort. But for me, his “Solaris” is neither provocative nor entertaining; I much prefer Tarkovsky’s version, solemn and somber (and pretentious) as it is.

“Solaris” was a big box-office flop, and the filmmakers put the blame on Fox’s poor marketing campaign and a trailer that had little to do with the movie.


George Clooney as Chris Kelvin
Natascha McElhone as Rheya
Viola Davis as Gordon
Jeremy Davies as Snow
Ulrich Tukur as Gibarian
John Cho as DBA Emissary #1