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There are films out there that are pretty much doomed to fail at the box-office from the beginning due to a variety of factors. In the case of Solaris, Director Steven Soderbergh and close friend and star George Clooney were probably hampered by their own successes, coming off the back of such hits as Traffic (which won Soderbergh and Oscar), Ocean’s Eleven (a close collaboration between the two of them) and Out Of Sight (another director/star hit).

Audiences were probably entitled to expect another mainstream blockbuster to follow, but when Soderbergh was approached by rights-holder James Cameron (yes, the James Cameron) about helming Solaris and Clooney showed his passion for the lead role the pair soon went down a very different path.

The lack of box-office cash for the film was a blow to those in charge but the value of this film might well be the niche market it will attract on the home format. No amount of publicity (there really wasn’t all that much said about this film during its run in Australia) or news items about George Clooney’s infamous “bum-shot” could turn it around in cinemas. Thankfully audiences have a second shot at making their own minds up about this one instead of relying on word of mouth and an overly critical section of the media.

Solaris (2002)
Movie
Um, where do I start? The film is based on a film based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem. The 1972 version, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, ran almost three hours in length and was often likened to Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Soderbergh maintains that the 2002 film is not actually a remake (similar to the way he marketed Ocean’s Eleven as nothing like the original save for the title) but a re-interpretation of the ideas in the novel. He’s actually right because the focus is shifted squarely on one or two main aspects so that things remain in check for the (much shorter) duration.

Psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) takes a mysterious call from a friend aboard a space station, Prometheus, currently orbiting the planet Solaris. What was meant to be a routine exercise seems to have turned into an eerie, catastrophic series of events, with Kelvin the only person the crew can rely upon to sort things out after a failed attempt at rescue. Those on board could have abandoned the exploration and returned home but they are determined to get to the bottom of things whilst they are there.

Kelvin arrives to find two men dead (including the one who sent him the distress call in the first place), a young man named Snow (played by Jeremy Davis) who seems to say a lot without saying anything at all and a woman named Gordon (Viola Davis) in self-exile in her quarters, far too frightened to come out. Eventually Kelvin manages to extract some sort of information out of both of them but nothing that helps him figure out what the hell has gone on inside the space station.

With more questions than answers Kelvin decides to call it a night, which is where things get really interesting. Firstly, you should see the funky-looking beds they’ve got up there. If any astronauts read this I want you to tell us whether those beds are actually real or just part of Soderbergh’s creative license. Secondly, Kelvin is awoken by none other than his wife, Rheya (Natasha McElhone, quickly becoming an out-and-out star). Or ex-wife. Actually, his dead wife, who we find out passed away (or killed herself, or something) years earlier. Naturally our hero is pretty freaked by it all but at least he’s some way to figuring out what is happening.

Solaris (2002)
The crux of the story revolved around the characters’ pasts being dredged up and made to seem frighteningly realistic. Kelvin can converse with his wife, touch her and even send her into space before she returns once again. The others do their bit to make things more complicated but essentially this is a one-character film, which Clooney pulls off exceptionally well. He may not look more than just a handsome face but he can sure carry a film regardless of the character.

Solaris can be called nothing else except bizarre. The film probably delves into the classic science-fiction style more than any other film of late and the appeal will be to try and answer the questions you have over a couple of viewings. What really happens to these people? How can the past become so realistic? And why?

There is no doubt this won’t appeal to everyone, and even devoted sci-fi fans might find it hard to deal with the slow-pace, the inherent lack of any meaningful dialogue for large parts of proceedings and the very eerie sense we get from the incredibly slow movement, haunting score and Soderbergh’s brilliant direction. He may not have made a hit but the talent still shines through with everything he does, make no mistake about it. This is a niche film, plain and simple. There is no mass appeal about any of it, but what it will do is provide a different kind of film that doesn’t generally surface unless you’ve got the pulling power similar to that of the director. It’s a thought-provoking and mysterious piece of work that merely floats its way through 90 minutes of non-action, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll leave it up to you to decide about this one.

Video
This film looks absolutely stunning due largely to the cinematography and the lavish space station set. The transfer, presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, is a real treat and does complete justice to Soderbergh’s vision. Take a look at some of the computer-generated space scenes to see just how vibrant, sharp and clean these pictures really are. The interiors fare largely the same, with only a hint of aliasing creeping in here and there due to the complexity of the set and those pesky grills littered around the space station. Everywhere else is rendered near perfectly, with film grain evident on occasion but I’m guessing that was intentional on the filmmaker’s part. A great transfer overall.

Audio
The disc includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that is only really called upon to continue the whole subtlety of the whole production. Surround use is limited to the hum of the space station, a few ambient effects here and there and the occasional din of metal on metal. Subwoofer use was rare, used only really for more oomph in the ambient drones of the spaceship and some of the score.

Solaris (2002)
The score itself, helmed by Soderbergh favourite Cliff Martinez, fits in perfectly with the tone of the film and is possibly one of the best musical mixes of recent times for sheer subtlety and feeling. On occasion the score really kicks in to provide that eerie, brooding tone we can see through the action on screen. The clarity with which it is delivered by the 5.1 soundtrack is top notch and really makes this disc a joy to listen to.

Extras
First up one the extras list is a commentary track with Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron, who worked as a producer on the film after handing over directing duties to his buddy. These two have an immediate rapport and are really interesting to listen to, particularly because they like to compare how their visions may have been different. They also talk about the themes brought up by this sort of film, delving into what was re-shot, how things came together and the problems they faced during shooting. A great track to listen to, which might also help those who are a little lost with what goes on.

Next up is the HBO special, which is really a detailed outline of the film, obviously screened before its release. There are interviews with all the main players, clips from the film and some behind the scenes footage present but this is really just standard fare. A welcome addition nonetheless.

The real making of material is in the Behind The Planet featurette, where we get to see how Soderbergh came on board and how he works with the actors and crew behind the scenes. There is much less talk in this featurette because the visuals are actually quite interesting.

The whole script is also included, though I’d suggest only devout fans of the film would be interested in making their way through all the pages. It’s interesting to see just where scenes were cut out and what they contained, yet that probably only makes one disappointed that no deleted scenes are included in the extras section. Overall, the commentary and behind the scenes featurette probably make the supplements a lot more attractive than they actually look.

Solaris (2002)
Overall
It’s hard to make anything of this film. It took me a second viewing to figure out that I actually liked the movie, though I don’t think I’d revisit it again. But for sheer difference there’s no going past the very mysterious and slow-moving events that take place on board the space-station. The video transfer more than backs up the lavish set and cinematography, while the audio mix is among the better tracks of recent times even though it won’t knock your socks off. Some quality extras round out what is a pretty good disc, so that niche audience who will really enjoy this film is well and truly catered for.


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