Polish author Stanislaw Lem's contemplative 1961 science fiction masterpiece Solaris has been adapted for the screen three times. The first was a 1968 TV movie by the USSR Central Television network. I highly doubt that many people outside the Iron Curtain ever glimpsed it, especially considering that Andrei Tarkovsky's long but excellent blockbuster adaptation from 1971 is often erroneously cited by critics as being the first page-to-screen version of the story. Lem didn't much care for either, nor did he approve of Steven Soderbergh's 2002 American attempt. The differences between Tarkovsky's and Soderbergh's takes are many, not the least of which is the gulf in critical and box office responses. Solyaris made Tarkovsky popular enough to greenlight an entire career's worth of bizarre art films while the George Clooney vehicle Solaris flopped about as hard as possible. Critics barely paid attention to it and movie-goers yawned in kind. In my opinion, this unique film deserves a major reassessment.
As with a lot of flops, a big part of why Solaris did so poorly on initial release was its bad marketing. There were two different trailers used to promote the movie and both misrepresent it. One made Solaris look like a tense sci-fi thriller and the other posited the film as some kind of Twilight Zone love story. The truth is that Solaris is actually a strange, deliberately paced psychological drama about loss, regret and the fallibility of human memory. I'm not suggesting that a more honest trailer would have made Solaris a bigger hit in sheer ticket sales, but at least it wouldn't have suffered undeserved backlash for being an art film promoted as a popcorn flick.
The premise of Solaris, both the book and the films, is mind-bending on its own. A psychologist named Chris Kelvin visits a space station orbiting an unusual planet called Solaris when its crew experiences mass mental breakdown. When he arrives, Kelvin discovers that Solaris attempts to communicate with the scientists studying it by manifesting as people from their pasts based solely on their memories. Kelvin is visited by a duplicate of his dead wife and is forced to relive the circumstances surrounding her passing.
In Soderbergh's Solaris, the action jumps between Kelvin on the space station and intimate scenes from his past with his wife Rhea. Clooney plays Kelvin as an alternately angry and arrogant man struggling with his own impotent attempts to change himself and others. He's a control freak who comes to the slow realization of just how uncontrollable his world is. Natascha McElhone stars opposite Clooney as Rhea and she's really the standout performer in the film. She actually has two different characters to play. One is the real Rhea on Earth and the other is her simulacrum on the space station. The former retains the subtle traces of life, from barely veiled facial expressions to individualized tastes. The duplicate, in contrast, doesn't always convey the correct emotions and has no real trace of an inner life. Soderbergh's script and direction is subtle enough to place these nuances in his actors' control and they deliver with stunning restraint.
Taken as a sci-fi art film with no pretense to wild, crowd-pleasing bombast, Steven Soderbergh's Solaris is a beautiful, slight production. It has a distinct visual style, a keen sense of emotional tension and even a unique musical score by Cliff Martinez. Soderbergh took a bath when it came to the gross box office of the film, recouping about a third of the budget, but that fits his pattern. Steven Soderbergh knows how to play the Hollywood game, making big-name movies like the Ocean's series and prestige pictures like Traffic so he can occasionally push a project for the sake of the art. Solaris belongs beside Kafka and Sex, Lies and Videotape in Soderbergh's canon.