Among the many thousands of films that don’t need to be remade by Hollywood, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1971 Solaris appeared to occupy a safe position near the top of the list. Either of two things it had going for it should have been enough to secure it from tampering: first, it’s a masterpiece, and second, its story (from Stanislaw Lem’s novel) is as un-Hollywood as you can get: metaphysical, downbeat, with a passive and intellectual main character, and steeped in ambiguities about consciousness and reality. Why Steven Soderbergh and his producers (who include James Cameron) wanted to try their hands at it is a mystery. And viewing the hollow result doesn’t shed any light on that mystery.
In a future when interplanetary flight is routine, psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is sent to troubleshoot a research project on the planet Solaris. One member of the project’s three-person team has died, and the other two (Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis) won’t give him a straight answer about what’s happened. Chris soon learns that Solaris has the power to torment its visitors with simulacra created from their memories. His first reaction when his dead girlfriend, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), shows up, apparently alive, is to ship her off into the void in a space capsule. After she reappears, he decides to resume their relationship, hoping to atone for the past actions by which he abandoned the real Rheya to suicide.
Soderbergh’s main innovation is to add flashbacks chronicling Chris’s ill-fated relationship with the real Rheya. These are handled in the crisply disjunctive manner he stole from John Boorman and Alain Resnais for The Limey, with straight cuts to quick shots raising brief uncertainties about where and when some event is taking place. The strategy, which worked fine for The Limey, kills Solaris. Since we’ve seen Rheya act and talk in real life just as she does on Solaris, she’s robbed of an important source of ambiguity. And Chris becomes less interesting the more fixated he is on his "second chance" with Rheya: in the book, and in Tarkovsky’s movie, the past is irreversible, and Chris’s relationship with Rheya is a stage on the way to a radical questioning of all existence.
There was plenty of opportunity for the showy special effects that are the least you expect from big-studio science fiction. Lem’s book is filled with detailed descriptions of Solaris’s shape-shifting landscape, and since Tarkovsky mostly ignored these passages, here at least was an excuse — not a good one, but an excuse — for a remake. But Soderbergh is aiming above the lowest common denominator. His Solaris — a ball of bluish and pinkish clouds veined with whitish streaks — wouldn’t tax the resources of the art department of a small PBS affiliate. His reluctance to rely on spectacle would be admirable if he could put something in its place. But he merely alternates between a perfunctory, psychobabbling waste of the story’s potential and blatant attempts to flummox the audience (re-enacting Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in a corridor of the spaceship, for example).
Solaris might just be the worst-acted film of 2002. Clooney and McElhone never dispel the impression that they’re posing for graphics that will go on the side of a bus. It would be unfair, of course, to hold Clooney’s perfect head shape against him, but he gives the role nothing else: Soderbergh flattens him into a wary monotony. And the director massacres Rheya so thoroughly that even if McElhone were a good actress (hard to judge here), she wouldn’t have a chance. Viola Davis, whom the script gives little to do and who was directed to do even less, might have wished that she could become invisible and inaudible, qualities that would have served her well in coping with lines like "Whatever it is, it’s not human. And I’m threatened by that." And Jeremy Davies, with his tortured hand gestures (he semaphores that he’ll keep quiet about something as if he were shooing away acid trails while trying to hand-signal a truck into a parking space), is both the most maddening actor of all time and a perfect symbol for the vague, muddled ridiculousness of Soderbergh’s movie.