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Aboard a lonely space station orbiting a mysterious planet, terrified crew members are experiencing a host of strange phenomena, including eerie visitors who seem all too human. And when psychologist Chris Kelvin arrives to investigate, he confronts a power beyond imagining that could hold the key to mankind's deepest dreams...or darkest nightmares.

Steven Soderbergh
George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis
Writing Credits:
Steven Soderbergh, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem

There are some places man is not ready to go.
Box Office:
Budget $47 million.
Opening weekend $6.752 million on 2406 screens.
Domestic gross $14.970 million.
Rated PG-13 on appeal for sexuality/nudity, brief language and thematic elements.

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby Surround
Spanish Dolby Surround
French Dolby Surround
English, Spanish

Runtime: 99 min.
Price: $27.98
Release Date: 7/29/2003

• Audio Commentary with Director Steven Soderbergh and Producer James Cameron
• HBO “Making Of” Special
• “Solaris: Behind the Planet” Documentary
• Trailers
• Original Screenplay

Search Titles:

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Solaris (2002)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 27, 2003)

Steven Soderbergh seems poised to become his generation’s most prolific and interesting filmmaker. He won the Best Director Oscar for 2000’s Traffic. In 2001 and 2002, Soderbergh helmed three more movies: Ocean’s Eleven, Full Frontal, and Solaris.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the winners of the 10 Best Director awards prior to Soderbergh to see how quickly any of them got to their third post-Oscar flick. Some haven’t gotten there yet; both Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Anthony Minghella, and Sam Mendes directed only one movie each since they won their prizes, though some of those guys have new efforts currently in the works. James Cameron still has yet to formally follow up Titanic more than five years after the fact.

Steven Spielberg won two Best Director Oscars. After his first for 1993’s Schindler’s List, he needed five more years to get to his third post-award movie. Following his second prize – which ironically came for that third film after List, 1998’s Saving Private Ryan - Spielberg required another four and a half years to get to his third subsequent picture. Robert Zemeckis needed six years to release a third film after 1994’s Forrest Gump, while Clint Eastwood took five years to finish flick number three following 1992’s Unforgiven. Lastly, Jonathan Demme went 11 years after 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs to create his third movie.

In this context, it makes the rapidity with Soderbergh works seem all the more remarkable. Can I claim that all of his movies succeed? No, but at least the guy tries and seems willing to experiment and occasionally fall flat on his face.

I won’t say that Soderbergh totally flops with 2002’s Solaris, but the movie lacks much life. Set in some undefined future society, we meet Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), a therapist who seems pretty depressed himself. He receives a message from an apparent friend named Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), who requests that he come to a planet-like entity called Solaris. Something called the “DBA” sent a security force there, but it disappeared, so they want Kelvin to go and negotiate for their return.

Kelvin arrives on the space station that orbits Solaris and he finds blood and corpses in its seemingly abandoned halls. Soon he meets a crewmember named Snow (Jeremy Davies), who disjointedly tells Kelvin what occurred. When Kelvin tries to chat with the only other apparent survivor, Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis), she refuses to let him in her room, though she does speak through a cracked door.

Kelvin attempts to trace what really happened here, and he briefly sees a mysterious boy who allegedly is the absent Gibarian’s son. After Kelvin dreams about his initial encounter with now-deceased wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), he awakes to find her in bed with him. He sets this spooky “ghost” adrift in space, but finds another doppelganger with him the following day. He keeps this one around and aspires to maintain a relationship with her to replace the absent real Rheya. While Kelvin deals with this battle of reality vs. fiction – as well as Gordon’s desire to get rid of the “visitors” – he also tries to find out the nature of Solaris and how it causes these incidents.

That synopsis probably makes Solaris sound a lot more linear and action-packed than it actually is. However, the film comes from the 2001 school of storytelling. If you read my review of the latter, you’ll find out that it took me quite some time to warm up to Kubrick’s classic, and I still don’t exactly embrace the flick.

However, after repeated viewings of 2001, I can understand its appeal and reputation. Perhaps if I watched Solaris a few more times I’d appreciate its charms, but frankly, I kind of doubt it. The film simply seems to lack the ambition and depth of 2001. In Kubrick’s hands, the long, languid shots took on a form of meaning, but Soderbergh’s images essentially just appear to fill space.

Rather than tackle the meaning of life or whatever the hell 2001 was about, Solaris really comes across as little more than a spooky love story. His apparent devotion to his deceased wife becomes the key element, and this theme certainly had potential to go somewhere. Kelvin feels guilt over Rheya’s demise, and her “return” grants him an opportunity to right various wrongs.

However, Soderbergh doesn’t seem to explore these issues with any depth. Admirably, he resists the traditional Hollywood impulses to scatter big action set pieces throughout Solaris, but the movie always feels on the verge of one of those. Soderbergh holds back, but it feels self-conscious in a way, as though he omits anything exciting as a statement of purpose. So badly does he want to make his own 2001 that he ignores moments that might bring desperately needed life to this turgid piece.

On the positive side, Soderbergh certainly emulates the visual style of 2001 well, and this makes Solaris a lovely a movie to watch. Unfortunately, it feels like an empty one. To be sure, it possesses some terrific ideas that could create a rich and intriguing movie. Solaris just isn’t that film.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+ / Audio B / Bonus B

Solaris appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Another generally good picture, the visuals just narrowly fell short of greatness.

No concerns related to sharpness affected my grade. The movie consistently came across as tight and well defined. I witnessed no signs of softness during the flick. Jagged edges and moiré effects also seemed absent, but some light but easily noticeable edge enhancement created haloes on more than a couple of occasions. The print itself lacked discernable flaws, and the movie was clean from start to finish.

Given the stylized science fiction world in which Solaris exists, I didn’t feel surprised to see its restricted palette. In general, the Solaris shots looked cold and bluish, while Kelvin’s flashbacks exhibited more life; though dominated by brown, they also tossed in some nice reds and a few other more vivid hues. Despite the moderately monochrome nature of the photography, the colors worked well, and they seemed clean and impressive. Black levels were dense and taut, while shadows looked clear and appropriately opaque. The low-light shots never took on a sense of excessive darkness. If Solaris lost the slightly distracting edge enhancement, it would have entered “A” territory, but as it stands, the movie received a “B+”.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Solaris betrayed no flaws, but it got its “B” due to a generally ordinary soundfield. Not much happened throughout the film, and the mix reflected that. General ambience dominated the piece. Actually, I got a real Star Trek vibe, for just like with those series’ ships, I heard a hum and light rumble that came with the station. Without that sound and the music, not much would have popped up in Solaris. A few space shots took on a bit more life, but not to a great degree. The surrounds mainly echoed the music from the front along with the station hum; no significant additional activity came from the rear.

Audio quality seemed positive. Speech was crisp and warm, and the lines presented no issues related to edginess or intelligibility. For the most part, effects played a minor role in the proceedings. Other than the aforementioned hum, I noticed little in that domain. Nonetheless, those elements sounded fine. Like every other element, the film’s score remained subdued, but the music sounded clean and natural in any case. The track exhibited more than acceptable range and dynamics. Nothing special occurred here, but I thought the audio accomplished its goals.

While not packed with supplements, Solaris includes a few good components. Of print appeal is an audio commentary from director Steven Soderbergh and producer James Cameron, both of whom sit together for their running, screen-specific track. How often do we get to hear two very famous, Oscar-winning directors gab with each other? Not frequently, and I’m happy to report that the Solaris commentary mostly lives up to expectations.

The pair interact well as they create a lively and interesting discussion. They go over a number of useful topics. This chat about Soderbergh’s languid pacing and many choices made in that domain, variations between this version of the story and prior ones, scoring options and alternate selections, effects, story issues, and other subjects. They occasionally reflect on their other works, and together they give us a great look at the film; this is a very entertaining and informative chat.

Footnote: Cameron’s on a roll! After not recording a single commentary for his entire career, he’s now done a pair that hit the shelves within two months of each other. In addition to Solaris, Cameron also chatted about Terminator 2: Judgment Day for that flick’s Extreme Edition. Since both commentaries seem very entertaining, I hope Cameron continues this trend in the future.

Next we find an HBO Special called Inside Solaris. The 12-minute and 50-second show presents the standard combination of movie clips, behind the scenes shots, and interviews with Soderbergh, producers Cameron, Jon Landau, and Rae Sanchini, executive producer Gregory Jacobs, and actors George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies and Ulrich Tukur. Very promotional in nature, “Inside” recaps the story and the characters, and tells us a little about the casting and the participants. The latter category allows us some modestly interesting moments such as when we see snippets of Tukur’s unusual audition tape, but otherwise it’s a puffy waste of time.

While not great, Solaris: Behind the Planet seems vastly superior to “Inside”. The 17-minute and 37-second program uses the same construction, but it features far fewer movie clips and many more shots from the set. We get remarks from Soderbergh, Cameron, Sanchini, Landau, Clooney, McElhone, production designer Phil Messina, construction coordinator Chris Snyder, Digital Backlot’s Rob Stromberg, VFX supervisor Tom Smith, and special effects coordinator Kevin Hannigan. The program covers some of the same ground in regards to casting and story, but it gets into these more deeply. It also discusses the film’s visual style and all the elements related to that. Since it repeats the better parts of “Inside”, there’s little reason to watch it. Instead, stick with the fairly satisfying “Planet”.

A few other bits complete the set. In the trailers domain, we find the teaser and theatrical ad for Solaris as well as promos for Le Divorce and the Russell Crowe vehicle Master and Commander. (Unusually, the latter bears the imprints of three different studios: Fox, Universal and Miramax. I’ve seen dual-studio flicks but don’t recall any from three organizations.) Finally, the screenplay appears as a still gallery. This area indeed includes the whole script, which makes it a cool addition to the DVD.

A generally interesting director, Solaris represents a disappointingly dull offering from Steven Soderbergh. He makes the movie look great, and it contains the seeds of a thoughtful and introspective piece. Unfortunately, it remains too superficial and never explores its themes in a satisfying manner. Though not stunning in either domain, the DVD provides good picture and sound, and it presents some nice extras highlighted by a simply outstanding audio commentary. Honestly, I like the latter so much I’d almost recommend the DVD just so you can hear it. However, the movie itself seems so bland that I can’t advise anyone beyond a small audience of supplements geeks like myself.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.4324 Stars Number of Votes: 37
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