Steven Soderbergh’s Unconventional Storytelling Dates Back to Solaris

By Kieran Mulvaney


In an early scene in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, an unnamed character observes that, “The more I see, the less I believe is real.” The words are uttered during a group therapy session moderated by clinical psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), part of an early sequence that suggests a mundaneness to Kelvin’s existence, one of making patient appointments, commuting through the rain and making dinner for one in a small apartment. It’s an existence that is thrown – literally – into orbit when he receives a message from an old friend, on board a space station sent to study the titular planet. Something untoward is affecting the astronauts on the station; but, Kelvin’s friend advises, they can’t agree among themselves just what it is.

Solaris, it turns out, knows it is being observed; in response, it observes back, in a manner that ultimately causes all those on board the station to lose their grip on sanity. The proximate cause: each person — including Kelvin, who is dispatched to assess the situation — has a visitor, who to all intents and purposes is manifestly real and yet, for multiple reasons, cannot be.

Natascha McElhone displays a touching vulnerability as Kelvin’s visitor, Rheya, as confused by her presence as he is, and ultimately more anguished by it. Clooney is on peak form as Kelvin: charming and roguish in flashbacks that slowly invite us into Kelvin and Rheya’s past, and increasingly tortured as he at first battles against his visitor’s presence and then succumbs to and embraces it.

Simultaneously crisp in its storytelling and languid in its pacing, with nods to influences as diverse as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, Solaris is nominally set in outer space; but its true tableau is the human psyche and the nature of existence. As one character asks in a concluding scene: “Am I alive or dead?” “We don’t have to think that way anymore,” replies another.

Haunting, thoughtful and provocative, Solaris is a movie better experienced than described. In the words of Jeremy Davies’ crew member Snow, when Kelvin first arrives on the space station: “I could tell you what’s happening. But I don’t know if I could really tell you what’s happening.”