Ever since a career resurgence that began with 1998's impeccable and funky Out of Sight, former Baton Rougean Steven Soderbergh has proved himself a jack of all trades. No longer burdening himself with trying to fulfill the promise of being the next great indie filmmaker -- a mantle loaded on his shoulders with his landmark debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape -- Soderbergh has deftly crafted films that can plug into one genre or another. The question has become whether he's an indie filmmaker at heart who can make smart mainstream fare, or a mainstream filmmaker who's smarter than the average bear.
Am I splitting hairs here? Perhaps. But the question remains, even after his most recent work, Solaris, if Soderbergh really has something to say. Maybe the safest thing to suggest is Soderbergh is a filmmaker with sometimes calculated ambitions, and that's not a bad thing. In his sweeping take on America's relationship with drugs, Traffic, those ambitions play out nicely. When it happens with his more personal works, like Schizopolis and the more recent (and critically panned) Full Frontal, not so much.
Which brings us back to Solaris, which feels like something awkwardly trapped between the grandiosity of Traffic and the interior machinations of Schizopolis. And after watching Solaris, one can't help but feel a little stuck even while applauding the effort. For in remaking Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 meditation on existentialism and environment dressed up as a sci-fi movie, and stripping it down into a romance, Soderbergh continues to make us wonder just where he's going with all this. Indeed, it seems that the director wants to present a cerebral love story, but in the end, despite all of its earnestness, Solaris has only some of the brains and not enough heart.
What it does have, though, is a deftness of cinematic touch (this is Soderbergh, after all), and gutsy performances from its two leads. Even though George Clooney and Natascha McElhone don't generate the requisite heat that fuels a more traditional romance, they gamely cut against the grain. Clooney, whose previous characters were usually at odds with the physical world, as grieving psychologist Chris Kelvin grapples with more personal storms. Clooney may be drop-dead gorgeous with his swarthy features, but as Chris he's cultivating the clashing emotions of grief and a subtle arrogance. McElhone, one of the most under-used beauties in Hollywood, walks a wondrous high-wire act as what essentially is a reincarnation of a dead wife. McElhone is wholly impossible to ignore; her piercing, marble-size blue eyes are imbedded in an angled face set off by sharp points. As someone who has been conjured by Chris' psyche with a little help from the planet of the movie's title, Rheya must subtly evolve from a blank slate to a re-developing memory as she challenges her husband, once again, to understand just whom he's dealing with.
Chris has been summoned to a space station to investigate a strange phenomenon that has been driving its crew to suicide -- apparently, the planet's energy has picked up on the crew members' subconscious and is bringing back to life people from their past. As soon as Chris goes off into his first night's sleep, Rheya, who herself had committed suicide years earlier, reappears in Chris' bed.
Is Chris dreaming? Not only does Rheya seem real, she's getting more real by the minute, and just as Chris believes he can correct any mistakes that might have led to her death, Rheya's evolution into a real person only seems to fuel the futility of his plans. The two remaining crew members, Snow (an annoyingly affected Jeremy Davies, all squints and stutters) and Gordon (a grim Viola Davis), are also futile in their warning Chris about what he's getting himself into.
Soderbergh counters the coldness and claustrophobia of the space-station reunion with flashbacks to the beginnings of Chris and Rheya's relationship and subsequent marriage, and at times it does warm up the proceedings. This is also where Soderbergh offers up the core theme, from the poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" by Dylan Thomas -- no stranger to existentialism. As they read in a bookstore, "Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again/ though lovers be lost love shall not/ And death shall have no dominion." Love, Thomas argues, outlasts the physical world.
Soderbergh is treading in unexplored territory here. Even though he co-produced the film with Mr. Action, James Cameron, Soderbergh certainly feels no desire to make a true sci-fi film. The only time he's generated any real sparks -- in his best work, Out of Sight -- Soderbergh still doesn't seem willing to invest enough in his leads' love for each other.
Which is what makes Solaris feels little more than a laudable effort, a noble, structured exercise in filmmaking. Here's hoping that his next effort has a little more soul.
- Dream come true: Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) wakes up next to his not-so-dead wife (Natascha McElhone) in Steven Soderbergh's latest effort, Solaris.