Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Sixth Sense in Outer Space: Solaris

And death shall have no dominion. Dead men naked they shall be one with the man in the wind and the west moon. When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone they shall have stars at elbow and foot. Though they go mad they shall be sane. Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again. Though lovers be lost love shall not. And death shall have no dominion.
—From a poem by Dylan Thomas

Chris Kelvin sees dead people.

George Clooney stars as Kelvin in Solaris, a 2002 remake of a moody Russian film (1972's Solyaris) based on a story by Stansilas Lem. Clooney's character is a depressed psychiatrist, barely more stable than his patients. When he gets a request to travel to the mysterious planet Solaris, he seems willing enough to leave his disconnected life behind.

Wait a minute! This is a future flick? No clues in the movie... Good thing I saw the poster. And maybe the reason it's raining all the time isn't just to set the mood.

Next thing, Kelvin is debarking from a small ship into the Solaris station. No one is there to greet him, but he notices blood: smears on the deck grill and corridor ceiling, a bloody handprint on a door-jamb. He walks into a room (medical station? lunchroom?) to find two bodies in bags on the tables. More blood. He opens one, and sees the frozen face of the friend who asked him to come to Solaris.

Creepy is good.

When Kelvin does locate the crew, they're down to three people. One is a spastic fellow (subtly played by Jeremy Davies) who drops broad hints about the coming terror for Kelvin: "How long can you go without sleeping?" Another is the doctor (Viola Davis), who refuses to come out of her room, but confirms the first crewman's report. Kelvin's friend Gabarian committed suicide. The third is a child who runs away when Kelvin approaches. "Gabarian's son," he is told.

When he does finally fall asleep, it is to dream of his wife—and wake to her presence beside him in bed.

Wasn't any wife in evidence in the opening scenes—clumsy Kelvin cut his finger making a lonesome dinner for his solo self, just before he got on the ship to come to Solaris. Maybe she had left him, and that's why he was so depressed.

We gradually learn, through a series of dreams and flashbacks, that Kelvin's wife is not just left behind on Earth, she's dead. So, presumably, was Gabarian's son, and the brother of the squirrely fellow. Their appearance on the ship has something to do, obviously, with the force fields that surround Solaris.

The movie is claustrophobic, with excessive jump cuts and dizzying flashbacks little distinguished from present-time, all interspersed with agonizingly-slow pans and frustratingly weird camera angles. The screenplay tries to conceal, but still manages to telegraph the "big reveal" (two actually): one character who we think is real is dead. One character who we believe is living is dead. Same twist, two different characters.

And what's up with the black doctor? First she won't open her door at all, and then she'll meet with Kelvin, but only outside her room. And there are bumps behind her while she's at the door—is she not alone in there?

Clooney's verge-of-tears portrayal of Kelvin is nowhere near as convincing as Haley Joel Osment's stiff upper lip in 1999's The Sixth Sense. Osment's terror was palpable; we merely observe Clooney's. Likewise, Kelvin's willingness to play Orpheus to his dead wife's Eurydice is a theme better served by Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come.

In fact, the movie Solaris reminded me of most was another life-after-death exploration, Jacob's Ladder. In that 1990 film, the bizarre jump cuts and constrained camera moves served the purpose of the story, to bring the viewer into the nightmare of life after Vietnam for Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins). I stuck with Clooney, waiting for a similar payoff to Jacob's Ladder, to reimburse me for the directorial roller-coaster ride. I stayed with it even past the cutesy Michelangelo Sistine Chapel moment.

When the credits rolled, I realized I had argued myself into wasting over an hour and a half, time that could have been better spent digging my copy of the Lem story out of its box, and rereading it. Maybe some would be willing to spend this time with George Clooney, but I hope I can save the rest of you from making this error.

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