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Clooney shines in puzzling 'Solaris'

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ben Affleck, People magazine's sexiest man alive?

Sure, George Clooney already copped that honor -- back in 1997 -- but he demonstrates his sex appeal and acting ability (plus his bare behind) in "Solaris." He gets to be more than the debonair daredevil of "Ocean's Eleven" -- he shines in a sci-fi movie that seems frustratingly and purposely puzzling.


RATING: PG-13 for sexuality/nudity, brief language and thematic elements.

STARRING: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone

DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh



It deals with universal, vast questions about God, love, death, memory, redemption and understanding but does so in a manner that may have you exiting the theater asking, "What the heck just happened?" And, does it matter?

"Solaris," set in some unidentified future when it rains a lot, casts Clooney as Chris Kelvin, a widowed psychologist summoned by a pal named Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) to a space station near the planet Solaris.

"I don't know how to describe what we're experiencing up here," Gibarian says, and when Kelvin arrives, he finds dried blood, body bags and two scientists, one talkative and spacey, and the other too spooked to leave her room. That's not the weirdest part, though. Kelvin awakens in his quarters to find his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) -- who died several years earlier. Or is it someone who looks like his wife?

Is he experiencing the very Dylan Thomas poem he once quoted to his future bride: "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," which suggests: "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."

Kelvin, whose past is recounted through vivid dreams and flashbacks, must try to figure out what is happening to him and the others aboard the space station and return home.

"Solaris" is based on the 1961 novel by the Polish-born Stanislew Lem. Russian director Andrew Tarkovksy turned it into a movie in 1972 and now some heavy Hollywood hitters -- Clooney, writer-director Steven Soderbergh and producer James Cameron -- have taken another stab at it.

Clooney, who must often make his eyes well with tears and his breathing quicken from fear, shock or overwhelming emotion, is very good, but the movie sometimes assumes we were briefed on plot points at the door.

It's telling that the space station is named Prometheus, revered by the ancient Greeks as a benefactor whose gift of fire to man came to symbolize enlightenment and resistance to despotic authority. Another legend has it that Zeus ordered the creation of a woman -- Pandora -- to plague Prome-theus and all men.

One woman plagues and pleasures Clooney's character, and he confronts his memory of her in the nether reaches of the universe.

Cameron says this is sci-fi "in the way science fiction used to be back in the '50s and '60s, when it was a fiction of ideas, a fiction of people." But those ideas and people are sketchily introduced. Hints are dropped about Rheya, played by McElhone in a way that calls to mind a young Meryl Streep. Filling out other key roles are a jumpy Jeremy Davies and an underutilized Viola Davis, who plays a maid in "Far From Heaven."

Much was made of the MPAA's initial decision to give the movie an R rating because of the nudity; it was changed to PG-13, but I cannot imagine many teens -- seeing that "8 Mile" is sold out or impossible to sneak into -- opting to visit "Solaris."

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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