“And death shall have no dominion.”
As a directing and acting team, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney have six team ups under their belt. Of those that I’ve seen, they have one absolute clunker in Oceans 12, one that’s just OK with Oceans 13, then three really good to great movies. That’s a pretty great strike rate. So with one collaboration between these two left to see, did Solaris maintain their impressive average, or bring it down?
Psychologist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) receives a video message from an old friend, Dr Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur). Gibarian is currently working on a space station in orbit around the planet Solaris. Some weird stuff is going down onboard and Gibarian believes his two other cremates need Chris’ professional help. When he arrives on the station, Chris discovers Gibarian dead, and the remaining two crewmates at various levels of sanity. There’s the creepy but weirdly honest and open Snow (Jeremy Davies), and the defensive, combative Gordon (Viola Davis).
Initially, Chris assumes they’re both completely insane and possibly both involved in Gibarian’s death. But on his first night there, Chris dreams that he’s been joined by his long dead wife, Natascha McElhone as Rheya. But the dream turns into something much more confusing when he wakes up and discovers that Rheya, or some kind of clone of Rheya, is actually there with him, in the flesh. These visitors aren’t new to Snow or Gordon who join with Chris to figure out where they come from and what their connection is to the mysterious planet below.
One thing I’ve always appreciated about Steven Soderbergh his is economical, no frills approach to storytelling. He gets in, gets out, gets his story told and rarely indulges in excess. So after enduring the almost three hour Russian version of Solaris from the 70s, I was more appreciative than ever of Soderbergh’s restraint when I saw that his remake was over an hour shorter. And the story loses nothing with that excised bloat.
In fact, that was what I noticed about the Russian version. It took so long to get to the meat of the story, I had lost any investment I may have ever had in the characters. With the American version, Chris is on the space station within literally the first 10 minutes. With so much contemplation and philosophising to come once Rheya arrives, it works so much better to get to that point quicker and for Solaris to sink its teeth in immediately.
I found myself liking Soderbergh’s Solaris more than I expected. But I think that might have been due to being so bored by the original. That perspective, having sat through the almost three hours of the Russian version made me appreciate the brevity of Soderbergh’s in a way that I probably never would have noticed without it. I guess what I’m saying is, I probably wouldn’t recommend watching Soderbergh’s Solaris. But if you feel like you have to, try to endure Tarkovsky’s first. It can only make the new millennium retelling a little better.