Framed in darkness and shot predominantly from behind, George Clooney is every bit the living robot in the opening sequences of Steven Soderbergh's beautiful remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film. The images are perfect as they set the tone for this fascinating exploration of love, loss, and the great divide between memory and projection. Called the Russian 2001 upon its release, Soderbergh rightly evokes two other American films for this skillful sci-fi love story: Vertigo and Blade Runner.
A lonely and isolated shrink, reeling from the untimely death of his wife, Clooney's Dr. Kelvin is sleepwalking through his existence on Earth, a dark and rainy world where there seems to be little hope for the man. When two men suddenly appear at his door, the good doctor is requested to board the space station that is circling the planet Solaris. In a recorded message from the mission's leader, and Kelvin's good friend, Jabarian, the psychologist is beckoned to Solaris with the cryptic directive that he needs to see what is happening there.
Suited up and blasted off, looking every bit like Keir Dullea, Kelvin arrives on the space station to an eerily empty ship. He quickly discovers trails of blood and two dead bodies on ice in the hold-one of them being his old friend, Jabarian. The remaining two crew members, a weird twenty or thirtysomething who talks like he's stoned all the time (Jeremy Davies) and the beleaguered and frightened captain (Viola Davis), provide few details about the bizarre goings-on. One crew member disappeared, one killed himself and, according to the two still standing, the ship is somehow infested with another life form, of sorts. Kelvin is told he will understand more once he's experienced what they have. As the captain says, "Until it starts happening to you, there is no point in discussing it."
It starts happening to Kelvin after drifting off to sleep one night-he dreams about his wife, Rheya, and, when he wakes up, she's manifested in his room, alive, seemingly as if materialized from his altered state. Described by the captain as a non-human life form, Kelvin sees this visitation as a second chance with his wife. But complicating matters, is the crucial distinction that these creatures, be they alien, android, or some other form of life, are carbon copies of their originals, they are conscious of their previous life, but also aware of their current state. Holding on to the faint hope that if he can discover what is going on with Solaris, why the planet seems to be sending these creatures to manipulate and possibly destroy the crew, Kelvin thinks he can bring this vision of his wife back to Earth.
Exploring issues of death, religion, hope and love, Solaris touches on many of the long-running philosophical questions of life. But, most interestingly, it focuses on the way in which love and memory are always mediated by perception and imagery. The most devastating and profound element of Solaris is the fact that the creature which has boarded the ship and is sleeping in Kelvin's bed, the one who looks and sounds exactly like his wife, is only a reflection of her, a reflection created to mimic his memory of her. Compounding this Hitchcockian theme are questions culled from Blade Runner about otherness, related here, as it is in that film, to the form of the android. And, although Solaris finally embraces a more hopeful ending than it should, the journey there is an incredibly fruitful one.
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