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Space Ghost Neurosis

Solaris,” the Steven Soderbergh version of Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic Soviet science fiction film from 1972, is a prime example of why Hollywood should not be allowed to remake foreign films. Even when the director, like Soderbergh, is of proven competence, and the intentions of the producers and the studio seem commendable, the set of rules under which Hollywood operates precludes a positive outcome. We’ve seen it before, as when the aptly named John Badham clumsily assassinated Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita” in “Point of No Return.”

“Solaris” concerns the physical and spiritual journey of a psychologist (George Clooney) who is called on to investigate some disturbing events on a space station that is orbiting a strange planet. The planet Solaris is being studied because its vast oceans emit strange types of energy. Unfortunately for the space station’s crew, that energy seems to be causing them to go mad. When Clooney arrives with the sole purpose of convincing the crew to return with him to Earth, he winds up falling prey to the same delusions that plague them.

The delusions in Clooney’s case take the form of his dead wife (Natascha McElhone), who committed suicide a few years before the events of the film. McElhone repeatedly appears as a disturbingly naive and, true to form, suicidal space ghost. She torments Clooney with his memories of their doomed relationship and the question of what he should do about her presence now. Vexed by the problem of her return, Clooney must wrestle with the central philosophical question of the film: Can we depend on the evidence of our senses, and nothing else, or is there some gestalt to the universe that demands a leap of faith?

In flashbacks we see that Clooney’s character has been a good citizen of the future, unquestioningly subscribing to a mechanistic idea of the universe as nothing more than a gigantic scientific process with each component describable and rational. But when his rationalism is called into question by the appearance of McElhone, it doesn’t take him long to see the light and take the opportunity to relive his life in Solaris’ embrace.

It would have been excusable to hope Steven Soderbergh would do right by his source material. After all, his adaptation of the British mini-series “Traffik” was a decent film in its own right. Sadly, while Soderbergh ably mimics Tarkovsky’s snail-like pacing and beautiful effects, his grasp of how to make philosophy meaningful in film is not as solid. The question that perplexes the psychologist is hardly simple. Any number of facets of the opposition between reason and emotion could have been explored. Instead, Soderbergh insists on forcing the audience to relive, along with Clooney, a series of somewhat tragic but ultimately tedious events from his relationship.

Also at fault are some of the performances. Clooney’s turn as the angst-ridden psychologist is slick and superficial. His switch from skepticism to belief doesn’t seem the least bit troubling for him. As soon as he’s presented with a tempting alternative in the form of the McElhone ghost, all his philosophy goes right out the airlock. We feel his pain well enough, but we are never able to find out why he comes to his decision so quickly.

McElhone’s casting represents another major false step. To truly believe that Clooney’s character has abandoned reason in favor of a pleasant fantasy, we ourselves need to see the allure of the fantasy. Her attempts at evoking sympathy from the audience for her character’s psychological problems are grating. Despite her best efforts to be doe-eyed and docile, it’s hard to reconcile McElhone’s appearance with the benign vision that has so much power over the psychologist. Every time she smiles hopefully at him, her face looks like it might just open up any second and reveal a mouth of razor-sharp teeth or perhaps a vicious baby alien, ready to gobble up Clooney and the other scientists.

So once again, even with a talented, respectful director, we are subjected to a pitiful mediocrity that should have never been considered. The inexorable logic of profit dictates that even an arty Hollywood film should contain an easily reconciled conflict and a happy ending to the love story. There is no space in Hollywood for pondering weighty questions that may not ultimately lead to a resolution. Thus the entire impulse behind “Solaris” is rendered pointless. No doubt this simplified version will eventually push the original off the racks at video stores and rental joints.

“Solaris,” rated PG-13. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring George Clooney, Natascha McElhone and Viola Davis. Now showing in area theaters.

Niels Strandskov welcomes comments at [email protected]

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