LOS ANGELES, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- By releasing "Solaris" in 2,600 theatres over the long Thanksgiving weekend, 20th Century Fox is trying to squeeze a quick mass market buck out of an intellectually inspiring but somber and befuddling art house film.
"Solaris" reunites director Steven Soderbergh and leading man George Clooney for the first time since their delightful blockbuster "Ocean's Eleven." And James Cameron of "Titanic" takes a producer's credit for owning the rights to the novel by Polish highbrow science fiction author Stanislaw Lem. Despite all this box office firepower, "Solaris" is what talented rich guys do when they are in the mood to "give back" to their art.
Movie studios, however, are never in that mood, so the distributor has been trying to whip up a profitable controversy over two poorly lit shots of Clooney's posterior. "Solaris," though, is so restrained (sometimes to the verge of rigor mortis) that you otherwise wouldn't even notice. But, then, what else can flacks chatter about when promoting a film that tries to inquire into the ineffable?
So, what is "Solaris" about? Well, it is about 1 ½-hours long, which is 70 minutes shorter than the celebrated (if seldom watched) version by the remarkable Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky.
He was a Christian artist, a follower of Dostoevsky working under a totalitarian atheist regime. Unlike dissident Soviet writers, who only needed paper and pencil, Tarkovsky's religious artworks required extracting millions of rubles worth of cooperation from a tyranny that owned all the means of production. Through force of will and a tendency toward obscurity, Tarkovsky managed to create five poetic movies in Moscow.
Tarkovsky's life story would make quite a movie, but nobody today seems interested in the seven communist decades -- unlike the 12 Nazi years, which take up an ever-increasing space in our cultural memory.
Disguised as a "2001"-style science fiction tale about strange happenings on a space station orbiting a sentient planet, Soderbergh's "Solaris" is actually an erotic elegy about lost love.
These are difficult genres to combine because the onset of the sex drive progressively narrows one's focus from the fate of humanity to the fate of one's genes. A prepubescent boy imagines mankind's future, but a middle-aged man dwells on his past.
A subdued Clooney plays a widower psychiatrist sent to investigate the vaguely described problems of the astronauts. When he arrives, a friend is dead, but the man's small son is running around the space station. Which is odd, because the boy had died on Earth.
The two survivors offer little clarification. Jeremy Davies (Private Upham in "Saving Private Ryan") plays a maddeningly zonked technician as if he were a Charles Manson who had been hitting too hard on the interstellar bong. Viola Davis is a brusque scientist too busy handling a rambunctious "visitor" she keeps locked in her cabin to enlighten Clooney.
It's bad form to give away the plot, but "Solaris" is so elliptical that viewers might need all the help they can get. And don't treat my interpretation as gospel -- the main pleasure "Solaris" affords is standing around afterward arguing over "What the heck was that about?"
As far as I can make out, when Clooney falls asleep, he dreams of how he met his late wife (luminous English actress Natascha McElhone). When he awakes, she is sleeping beside him. Aghast, Clooney pops her into an escape capsule and shoots her off into space. The next morning, she's back again, as lovely and loving as ever.
She doesn't, however, seem to remember anything about her life on Earth except what he remembered about her. Evidently, the planet Solaris is somehow generating replicants out of the astronauts' memories.
To the disgust of Davis, who wants to use a subatomic supergun to exterminate the station's infestation of imaginary friends, Clooney devotes himself to patching up the marital rifts that led to his wife's tragic death. But Wife 3.0 soon realizes she's not real. She kills herself, only to resurrect.
This may sound more entertaining than it actually is. Soderbergh maintains a certain level of suspense over whether the planet has malign intentions for the astronauts, or even our entire species, but viewers waiting for a money shot in which, say, alien claws shoot out of the wife's eyeballs will be disappointed.
Extrapolating from Dylan Thomas' lines, "Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion," the film ultimately resolves into a religious meditation on the workings of Heaven.
In Lem's novel, the planet Solaris is only a minor divinity, "a sick god whose ambition has exceeded his power." But this movie ends with a benevolent, forgiving God's representative welcoming Clooney to the afterlife with the same Sistine gesture with which God the Creator welcomed Adam to this world. Or at least that's what I think happens ...
Rated PG13 for mild eroticism and language.