Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, and on a film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris marks writer-director Steven Soderbergh's first foray into science fiction. Although impeccably made, the film is a slow and demanding work that firmly resists almost all of the pleasures of the sci-fi genre.
Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) has lost his passion for life since the death of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Plodding through days, suffering through nights, he lives as bleak and forlorn an existence as can be imagined in a future where it is always gray and rainy. Kelvin receives a message from his friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), a scientist aboard the spaceship Prometheus. Gibarian has been exploring the planet Solaris, and now asks Kelvin to join him. It's the last anyone has heard from the vessel.
Kelvin flies to the Prometheus. Once on board, he follows tracks of blood to the morgue, where he finds Gibarian's corpse. There seem to be no other survivors except Snow (Jeremy Davies), who is maddeningly vague about what happened, and Gordon (Viola Davis), who is so distraught that she refuses to leave her cabin.
That night, Kelvin dreams about his wife how they met on a commuter train, how they fell in love at a party at Gibarian's apartment, and how they married. Dream imagery blends with the present, until Kelvin wakes up to find Rheya in his cabin bed. She has come back to life, but a life that is strangely altered. She can't recall her death, for example. In fact, all she knows is what Kelvin remembers about her.
How Kelvin copes with his resurrected wife is a question explored at length, and in far greater detail than what actually caused her reappearance. Minimal attention is paid to a device invented by Snow and Gordon to tackle the dream materializations, which seem to be emanating from Solaris. Soderbergh's actors look determined but also a bit bewildered by the project (apart from Jeremy Davies, who seems to be channeling Crispin Glover).
Championed by some critics in the 1970s, the original Solaris clocked in at almost three hours, and was notable mostly for its interminable debates about what Preston Sturges once called 'deep-dish' topics: the meaning of life, the thin line between reality and fantasy, etc. Soderbergh's Solaris feels almost as long, with each scene unfolding at the same excruciating pace. And due to the nature of the plot, much of the story is repeated, at times with only minor variations. It will be tough sledding for viewers, most of whom will not be at all receptive to what is ultimately an argument in favor of suicide.