THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


There is currently a discussion occurring in the forums of the Online Film Critics Society. It revolves around the new movie Solaris, a collaboration between producer James Cameron and writer/director Steven Soderbergh. One of my OFCS colleagues has pointed out that critical reviews for the film have been very good, whereas the CinemaScore survey (which tallies the opinions of moviegoers as they leave the theater) gave Solaris a grade of "F" across the board. In other words, average ticketbuyers of every demographic seem to hate the movie. My colleague wonders if critics should be giving it a good review when the masses are quite clearly disliking it.

I believe that all I can offer to my readers is a personal opinion. I am right only for myself; you may feel free to agree or disagree with me. My only hope is that - in whatever way possible - my insights into any given film are entertaining and informative for you to read. Perhaps you consult my reviews before buying a ticket. Fine. Maybe you like to compare my opinion to your own, perhaps even discovering an interpretation of the movie that you never considered. Even better.

So why am I bringing all this up? Because as soon as the end credits on Solaris began to roll, the couple sitting directly behind me (whom I did not know) leaned over and tried to start a conversation. "Wasn't that the stinkiest movie of the year?" the woman asked. Actually, I informed her, I really loved it. "Well," her husband commented, "perhaps you are just on a higher intellectual plane than the rest of us." The couple then got up and walked away. Let me say this outright: I don't in any way think that I am intellectually superior to any other moviegoer. However, I really did love Solaris. Is it for everybody? Obviously not. Was it for me? Absolutely.

In this remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Russian film (which itself was adapted from Stanislaw Lem's novel), George Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a psychiatrist mourning the death of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Kelvin receives a message one day from a close friend named Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur). He is an astronaut on a mission to study a planet called Solaris. Something unexplainable is happening, he tells Kelvin before requesting that the psychologist come for a first-hand look. Kelvin makes the voyage - with the cooperation of the government - and is stunned by what he finds. The ship Prometheus has only two surviving members: Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davis). The others, including Gibarian, are dead. Snow and Gordon aren't talking, but it becomes clear that this is no alien attack. In fact, the remaining crew members don't want to leave.

George Clooney has an inexplicable encounter with Natascha McElhone in Solaris
It turns out that Solaris is a planet with mysterious powers, as Kelvin discovers when he wakes up one morning with Rheya by his side. Gordon warns that this is not really her; it's some weird manifestation. The others have had them, too. Kelvin is intrigued, though, and finds himself unable to believe that his wife hasn't really come back to him. Through flashbacks, we come to understand how the relationship formed, as well as what led to her death. Kelvin has carried around feelings of grief and regret, all of which he feels he can erase by simply believing that Rheya is real. Meanwhile, she comes to understand that she might be merely a recreation of a real person. It's a concept that is painful to both of them. She encourages Kelvin to send her back to Solaris, but he doesn't want to let go.

Solaris is a movie full of contradictions. It's set in outer space, yet it's not a sci-fi movie. It has big names like Cameron, Soderbergh, and Clooney attached, yet it is essentially a very expensive art film. It's a love story, but one with heavy metaphysical overtones. I found the movie challenging, captivating and, yes, sometimes frustrating. Soderbergh poses a lot of questions about life, death, and reality that can't be easily answered. At times, my head was spinning from all the philosophical implications of the situation. But that's exactly what I loved about it. The movie never takes the easy road. It dares you to think about issues that are hard to wrap your mind around. This is a story about one man's desire to undo the past. The question is: can he really heal himself by buying into an illusion, or will this only lead to a reexperiencing of an enormously painful event? I appreciate a movie that engages me as much as this one did.

George Clooney delivers an affecting performance as Kelvin; nothing in his body of work so far has suggested he could hit the emotional notes he hits here. The actor makes Kelvin's dilemma come alive. He desperately wants to believe that his wife's death can be undone, especially once he has a major revelation about the way he has remembered her. It's a role full of emotional moments, and Clooney nails each and every one of them. The movie is technically accomplished too. Soderbergh and Director of Photography Peter Andrews deliberately give the movie the look and feel of a foreign film circa the early 1970's; it is full of quiet atmosphere that suggests important things are happening. Their style, including the slow and deliberate pacing, really underlines the themes of the story. Although there are special effects, most of the movie is kind of stark in its look. It's a technique that keeps you focused on the ideas rather than the effects.

The colleague I referred to earlier feels that critics should try to recommend movies that mass audiences will like. I don't presume to know what you'll like. I only know what I like. Some people enjoy movies that simply provide two hours of innocuous fun; others prefer something that stimulates them intellectually or emotionally. I enjoy both kinds of movies when they are done well. Solaris is an example of the latter kind, and if you're into that sort of thing, you might agree with me that this one is done extremely well.

( 1/2 out of four)

Solaris is rated PG-13 for sexuality/nudity, brief language and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.

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