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(2002) (George Clooney, Natascha McElhone) (PG-13)

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Sci-fi: A psychologist must decide what to do when he encounters his dead wife on a space station orbiting an apparently sentient planet.
Chris Kelvin (GEORGE CLOONEY) is a psychologist who's focused on his work after the untimely death of his wife, Rheya (NATASCHA McELHONE), several years ago. Both of those factors are the reason his close friend, Gibarian (URLICH TUKUR), has sent him an urgent communiqué requesting him to come and investigate the strange occurrences and behavior being experienced onboard his space station, the Prometheus.

Orbiting the planet Solaris, the station's crew has been investigating its economic potential as a viable commercial property or possible energy source. Yet, it seems that the planet has similarly been examining the crew and has created a situation that they don't want to leave, but which is driving them mad.

When Chris eventually arrives on the Prometheus, only two of its crewmembers, Gordon (VIOLA DAVIS) and Snow (JEREMEY DAVIES) are alive, and both are acting quite odd. Hoping to get to the bottom of what's occurred, Chris questions both of them, but doesn't get any concrete answers.

What he does get, however, changes his life and view of it. In the middle of the night, Rheya suddenly arrives, unaware that she's supposed to be dead. Chris is understandably spooked and confused about her presence, but eventually realizes that the planet has somehow read his mind and created a perfect copy of her.

Although he's initially a bit reluctant to interact with Rheya, he eventually does and soon becomes intoxicated by her presence, especially due to the tumultuous way their relationship and her life ended a few years back. Yet, as Rheya eventually begins to realize that and Gordon insists that the wife be destroyed before they head back to Earth because she's not the real thing, Chris must decide what to do about the situation.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Movies, by their very nature, are all about trickery in that they attempt to create the illusion of reality out of that which isn't real. Unless a filmmaker fails in doing that due to violating the rules of whatever universe they've created or simply from doing a hack job with the material, most viewers willingly or unconsciously accept the subterfuge.

Some of the more intriguing films in my opinion, though, are those where any given movie character - and thus the viewer - isn't sure of what's supposed to be real and what's not in the story. While that can occur in most any genre, it's far more prevalent in sci-fi than most any other.

Such was the case with "Solaris," Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's novel about an apparently sentient planet creating a fabricated reality for space travelers orbiting around it. Purportedly the Russian answer to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," the film was pretentious and dreadfully slow but nevertheless intriguing and went on to inspire the likes of the similarly themed "Event Horizon."

Aside from that film and the similarity to other sci-fi stories including the "Shore Leave" episode of the original "Star Trek" TV series, I always thought that the original film was fodder for an American remake. Producer James Cameron and writer/director Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic," "Erin Brockovich") apparently felt that same way as they've now basically retold the same story in their remake of "Solaris."

Since "Star Wars" brought the genre to the masses, most everyone now associates sci-fi with special effects and action-laden fantasy stories. Some of that, of course, has always been present, but old-school sci-fi has always had a more intellectual and philosophical slant, and that's certainly the case with this effort.

While there's a bit of action and a touch of supernatural creepiness present, for the most part this is a thinking person's film. Exploring the themes of what constitutes life, whether one is predestined to revisit and repeat the errors of their past, and the life, death and rebirth of relationships, the film takes its time in telling its story and letting its pieces fall into place.

All of which means that those weaned on MTV style editing and rapid visuals might find the whole thing boring and laborious. Truth be told, it is a bit slow at times and Soderbergh purposefully uses a rather disjointed style to start the film, a tactic that initially distances the viewer from the proceedings.

In fact, the biggest complaint about the film - and some other intellectually based sci-fi offerings -- is that it doesn't engage the heart as much as the mind. Some movies play off the viewer's vicarious desire to see a deceased loved one once again, if only for a moment and especially if their last moments together weren't happy or positive. One need only think of films such as "Field of Dreams, "Frequency" or "Contact" to experience the emotional wallop such material can have if handled just right.

It's hard to tell if Soderbergh was going for the same thing. Yet, much of the film's cool and analytical posturing seems to have shortchanged that despite current and flashback scenes apparently designed to affect the viewer on that level. That doesn't mean the film won't connect with viewers from an emotional standpoint. Instead, it probably just won't elicit as much of a lump in your throat or tear in your eye reaction as it should

I did like the way Soderbergh used parallel storytelling techniques to reveal what happened to the main characters in the past. In addition, the film has some fun developments regarding them and the "illusions," although some viewers might see them coming. The plot twists only amount to a small offering of the myriad of plot possibilities stemming from the setup and they might not exactly knock your socks off, but they're fun to behold.

Performances are solid across the board with George Clooney ("Ocean's Eleven," "The Perfect Storm") playing the psychologist who falls under the intoxicating spell of being with his wife once again, even if he knows she's not exactly the real thing. Natascha McElhone ("FearDotCom," "Ronin") is also quite good playing the replicant who develops a conscience and then proceeds to question her very existence and validity as compared to the original.

While it would have been interesting had the titular planet read her thoughts and created a "visitor" for her - perhaps another version of Clooney's character - the scenes between them work and feel real. If only they could have elicited more emotional response from the viewer on a whole. Obviously present more for plot revelations and complications than that, Viola Davis ("Antwone Fisher," "Far From Heaven") and Jeremy Davies ("Secretary," "Saving Private Ryan") are also good as the other crewmembers onboard the "haunted" space station.

Although the film doesn't always head down the path I would have chosen (which isn't a fault, but just a judgment on my part) and doesn't always explain or delve into certain things as well as it should (that a few script tweaks would have remedied), overall it's a solidly told and intriguing piece of old-school sci-fi storytelling. Not perfect, but better once it gets rolling, and certainly not for viewers looking for fast-paced sci-fi fare, "Solaris" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 22, 2002 / Posted November 27, 2002

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