Solaris

(2002) ** Pg-13
99 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Steven Soderbergh. Cast: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies, Ulrich Tukur.

Didn't Steven Soderbergh used to be the guy who figuratively told us that the Tinseltown emperor had no clothes? With Soderbergh's science-fiction remake Solaris coming back-to-back with the soggy self-indulgence of the insufferable Full Frontal, the darling director is beginning to look overexposed.

A defiantly "indie" film in Hollywood sheep's clothing, Solaris dresses up Andrei Tarkovsky's mind-epic Solyaris in lavishly styled, self-conscious 2001: A Space Odyssey finery (including sleek Milena Canonero costumes and a minimal Cliff Martinez score), but the style has all the substance of paper-doll fashion when constantly undermined by Soderbergh's own smugly superior artistry. Soderbergh coolly slaps seventies style credits on the end of the picture, but he's begun to lose the "cred" and goodwill earned by much of his earlier work. As for the meat of Solaris, this "why?"-inducing remake seems ill-timed at best, with its pop mind-f***ing--blood-sucked of entertainment value--too little, too late after the rollicking metaphysics of The Sixth Sense or The Others.

George Clooney waves to the studio suits for 99 minutes as Major Tom-like Chris Kelvin. Kelvin, near catatonic with grief in the wake of his wife's death, says "why not?" to a research and rescue mission. When he arrives at the mysterious space station orbiting the mysterious Solaris, a mysterious apparition of his dead (or is she?) wife (Natasha McElhone) appears--among other "visitors"--to raise hell and/or heaven. The remaining astronaut inhabitants appear, in a word, rattled, including a plain silly Jeremy Davies doing his best impression of Brad Pitt's finger spasms in 12 Monkeys. Certain jerky narrative transitions suggest ample trimmings on the cutting room floor.

Solaris's uncommonly low-key special effects, painterly visuals, and mysterious tone can be seductive in short stretches, and heaven knows, I'm not averse to something different in mainstream entertainment. Soderbergh's Rorschach test does, in hindsight of its kitchen sink philosophical finale, offer food for thought, just not sufficient to excuse my cinematic indigestion. In general, I can do without the accursed mid-career crisis trend of pet-project remakes (The Truth About Charlie, anyone?). Seen in a multiplex, accompanied by the soft murmur of chewed popcorn, Solaris has a surreal, austere appeal, but the defiantly turgid pace is not, in itself, an artistic achievement.

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