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Solaris (2002)

Reviewed 2001-12-08
: This is not a great film, but it is great science fiction. Like all great SF stories, it tells us something, by way of asking questions, about humanity. The question I hear from Solaris is not, "What if?" but "What does it mean to be human?" The question is posed on the canvas of a dilemma faced by space travelers orbiting a planet called Solaris; it is a planet that reads minds and turns thoughts into "human" form.

George Clooney as Chris Kelvin and
Natascha McElhone as Rheya Kelvin
Is she as human as the original?
But are those forms truly human? And if not, what are they? And if so, how can they be? The original story comes from the novel by Polish SF icon Stanislaw Lem, and was adapted to film the first time by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 — a film I have not seen. This later version, perhaps like the 30-year-old one, could not be a commercially popular film because its virtues reside too much in its ideas and not enough in action. The big screen can't show moving brain cells, only moving bodies, so what the viewer gets from Solaris pretty much depends on what the viewer bears. How would you react if your dead wife appeared to you again in human form, with no rational explanation? And what if she was real in every respect, except... she behaved no better than, had no personality beyond, your recollection — precisely because that was the raw material of her creation?

The premise was explored in a Star Trek episode called "Shore Leave," written by SF legend Theodore Sturgeon, 36 years ago this month. In the 1966 TV story, the reified thoughts were placed in the context of an amusement park, and the story itself was played as an amusing adventure. But in Solaris, the truly disturbing content of the idea is explored. It is a story well told through its main characters, Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) and Rheya Kelvin (Natascha McElhone, who I hadn't seen and swooned over since 1998's Truman Show). Director Steven Soderbergh (I recently watched his less thoughtful Ocean's Eleven) carefully builds not a story but an environment or milieu around his claustrophobic cast, and does it well.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.