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Deep ideas in Solaris' ocean world

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Editor's note: Thanks to a holiday scheduling snafu, we here present another review of Solaris. Yes, this does mean the film is extra good.

            Some students of science fiction prefer to call the genre speculative fiction, an appropriate term for works that can encourage responses of a greater complexity than the entertainment and escapism of their ostensible subjects. Books and films that deal with all the familiar stuff of science fiction --- robots, the future, alien encounters, travel through space and time --- frequently suggest other possibilities in those subjects, which serve as metaphors for some larger and loftier themes and ideas. Throughout their histories, the literature and cinema of science fiction have examined their contemporary contexts, their own time and space, under the guise of some fantastic adventure, the exploration of some distant planet, or a battle with a bug-eyed monster

            The genre most often confronts the dominant, and often opposed, themes of politics and religion. While Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece, Metropolis, deals with both, political and social concerns have motivated films such as the classic Things to Come (1936) and just about all the memorable flicks of science fiction's Golden Age of the 1950s --- works as different as The Thing From Another World, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Since around the time Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey appeared, theological or philosophical speculation has also influenced science fiction film, as demonstrated in such works as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Alien tetralogy, Blade Runner, and even the Star Wars and Star Trek series.

            In the new remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972), an adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel, Steven Soderbergh naturally considers the same issues as the book and the previous movie. Since his version runs a little more than half the length of Tarkovsky's film --- one reason for gratitude --- it compresses much of the talk and action of the original, though generally retains its force and spirit.

            Advertisements for the film loudly trumpet the presence of the popular, handsome George Clooney in the starring role, however, audiences expecting some action-adventure flick, complete with rocket ships, aliens, and a virile hero in a space suit, may find themselves somewhat disappointed. (The pre-release publicity even made much of some purported dispute with the MPAA ratings board about the baring of the Clooney posterior. In a bold move for art, the offending scene remains in the film, though it's hard to believe that any eroticism or shock attaches to the sight --- darkly lit, in the middle distance --- of the entirely uninteresting buttocks in question.)

            While picking up the lumbering pace and cutting through some of the dense talkiness of Tarkovsky's film, Soderbergh's movie faithfully adheres to the intellectual questions and quandaries that preoccupy both the director and the novelist. The science fiction situation provides the foundation --- or, perhaps, the excuse --- for a good deal of philosophical, even theological discussion, particularly of such matters as identity, reality, existence, death, and resurrection. It's the sort of stuff that often occurs in the more orthodox contexts of metaphysics, ontology, cosmology, eschatology, and so forth --- heavy matter for the average sci-fi flick.

            Clooney plays a psychologist in some unspecified and very dark future, a future that exhibits almost no distinguishing features, other than that it rains all the time. A message from a scientist friend about some mysterious difficulties on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris summons him to investigate. When he arrives --- the actual journey to the Solaris satellite barely appears, a sure indication that science fiction itself takes a back seat to other interests --- he finds blood stains all over the place, two dead people in the morgue, and a decidedly agitated pair of survivors (played by Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis), who provide little information, but suggest deeper mysteries.

            Perhaps appropriately, Clooney begins to learn the truth in his dreams, in which he recalls his dead wife. Those dreams, in effect, resurrect his wife (Natascha McElhone), who returns from death to be with him again (her return, of course, accounts for the famous buttock baring). Clooney gradually discovers that Solaris somehow reconstitutes loved and lost individuals from the fabric of one's memories (for one crew member, his brother; for another, his dead, young son) as real people, living, breathing, loving, and able to remember the past they shared with the survivor. Although the film never hints at any process or cause for the events, the result naturally engenders considerably mixed emotions in Clooney, an odd combination of anguish, guilt, disbelief, even fear.

            After some desperate measures to rid himself of his "visitor" (as the crew calls the returned individuals), Clooney and the cast conduct a sort of philosophical inquiry into the nature of their uninvited guests, which leads the protagonist into a dark labyrinth of doubt. He raises some profound questions about life and death, the nature of memory, the basis of existence and identity, and the composition of reality itself. As the picture demonstrates, journeys into the vastness of the universe, even Einstein's universe, inevitably inspire questions about infinity. Exploring the cosmos leads to speculation about the cosmic; physics leads, ultimately, to metaphysics; and the encounter with an alien presence can turn into a confrontation with the self.

            Although talky and abstract, rather than action-filled and exciting, Solaris fulfills some of the historic intellectual promises of science fiction, which probably means it will delight many reviewers and please few fans of the form.

Solaris, starring George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis, Ulrich Tukur; based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem; written and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m.; rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.

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