Nov 27, 2002 at 12:00 am

Although its credits say that this new movie by writer-director Steven Soderbergh is based on the novel by Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, it’s actually more indebted to Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1971 adaptation. Like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Soderbergh’s version de-emphasizes the science-fiction angle — the futuristic hardware angle — and elaborates on the metaphysical aspects of Lem’s story. It also approaches the material with a similar trancelike pacing, to the extent that the film’s 96-minute duration often feels as suspended in time as did Tarkovsky’s 2-and-a-half hours. As a result, it seems like a film aimed to please no one. Fans of Tarkovsky’s elephantine but visionary rendition, an extended spiritual allegory whose ellipticalness was, in part, an attempt to get it past Russian censors, will find it a superfluous and truncated retelling, while those unfamiliar with the source material will probably just find it confusing.

One of the ways Soderbergh has tightened the story is to cut to the chase, premise-wise, to shorten Tarkovsky’s earthbound prologue and get the protagonist, psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), into outer space as quickly as possible. Kelvin is summoned by his old friend, Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), to come to a space station orbiting a distant planet called Solaris. Something has gone wrong, though Gibarian doesn’t or can’t explain what. When Kelvin arrives, he finds his old friend dead and the two remaining crewmembers spooked by something they can’t (again) bring themselves to articulate. Apparently the space station is haunted, but with the apparitions not coming from the great beyond but rather from nearby Solaris, whose huge and churning oceans seem to be somehow sentient. This is all pretty vague but acceptable in a story which is essentially a fantasy in sci-fi drag.

Through flashbacks we learn that Kelvin has brought a lot of heavy emotional baggage to the space station with him, psychic pain whose specificity makes it seem as though the whole Solaris thing was set up just for him — something which adds to the overall impression that the whole movie is taking place in his head. We see his first meeting with his wife-to-be, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), the early closeness of their marriage, its eventual disintegration and finally her suicide during a crucial moment of rupture. Kelvin is wracked by guilt because he walked out on Rheya just when she needed him most — or so he thinks. There’s nothing to suggest that, had he stayed with her, her suicide would have just been postponed. Anyway, it’s only a matter of time before Rheya, or some Solaris-produced replicant, shows up at the space station.

Solaris is an initially intriguing film with an annoyingly sagging middle section and an open-ended conclusion that seems less willfully obscure than just messed up. (One is forewarned by the pseudo-profundity of the film’s unofficial tagline: “There are no answers, only choices.”)

Clooney capably carries the film on his distraught shoulders, but Jeremy Davies, in the pivotal role of surviving crewmember Snow, is terrible. A spacey (no pun intended) bundle of tics and internal stammers, his efforts to come across as part comedy relief and part menace are sabotaged by what seems like a very crude version of Method acting. The look of the film (Soderbergh again serves as his own cinematographer) is subdued but harsh on the space station, which supports the idea that it all may be Kelvin’s dark fever dream, and the cutaways to the pulsing blue mass of Solaris are appropriately psychedelic.

By the end of the movie, enough ambiguity has been layered on to overwhelm its romantic angle, but not enough to inspire various interpretations — post-movie talk will probably be less of the “what did it mean?” than “what exactly happened?” sort.

Soderbergh deserves plaudits for following the commercial high of Oceans 11 with two egregiously experimental efforts — Full Frontal and this one — but one suspects that in this instance he had a little too much faith in the intrinsic weightiness of the subject matter. But whether Solaris is a movie about a man who creates an alternate life for himself by using the creative forces of his grief or about a planet whose strange powers may not be benign doesn’t seem to matter once the meditative pace starts to seem sluggish. A little less art and a little more artfulness in the storytelling would have been helpful.

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].