Lem Lite: Steven Soderbergh gets lost in space

Written and directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies

Steven Soderbergh has made a career out of pseudo-provocative crowd-pleasers, from his 1989 indie debut sex, lies, and videotape to 2000’s overrated Oscar-winner Traffic. In this context, tackling Stanislaw Lem’s genuinely provocative philosophical sci-fi novel – and, inevitably, Andrei Tarkovsky’s flawless 1972 adaptation – makes perfect auteur-ego sense: If Soderbergh doesn’t have a masterpiece in him, might as well piggyback on someone else’s, right?

Wrong. There are plenty of reasons somebody should have wised Soderbergh up before production started. Number one: the script, a collection of quasi-sophisticated inanities that renders the film’s most intelligent characters inarticulate and awkward. If you can call them characters – whatever inner lives they possessed must have ended up on the cutting-room floor. We don’t like or dislike them, they’re just uninteresting. This problem takes on an ironic hue in light of the story, about scientists on a distant intelligent planet that reconstitutes their dead loved ones. It’s the fourth dimension populated with one-dimensional sketches.

As Soderbergh lacks Tarkovsky’s eloquent eye, he is left to rely on his on-screen talent to redeem the holes in his script. None prove equal to the task. Jeremy Davies, of the Excessive Hand Gestures school of acting, portrays the supposedly brilliant Snow as an incoherent stoner. As Rheya, the poetry-spouting dead/alive wife of George Clooney’s Kelvin, Natascha McElhone plays it, like, really deep.

But the major problem is the leading man. Beyond his air-brushed physique, Clooney does nothing to redeem Soderbergh’s flawed script, which expects us to empathize with a psychologist who leaves his depressed wife because she has an abortion without asking his permission. We’re supposed to believe the automatonic Kelvin is an intellectual and a ladies’ man, but Clooney, with his limited emotional range and wrenchingly evident discomfort in front of the camera, is about as charming as a dead space monkey. Worse, Soderbergh apparently felt bound (perhaps by contractual obligation) to uphold his star’s heartthrob status by including a prolonged lovemaking sequence; it’s about as sensual as oxygen deprivation and features no less than three Clooney ass shots.

Andrei Tarkovsky understood the evocative power of the moving image to seduce and captivate an audience for an extended period of time. His 160 minute-long Solaris, firmly rooted in the tradition of European art cinema that he helped create, engages the viewer in a prolonged meditation on science and mortality. For all his supposed adventurousness, Soderbergh is too much the industry pragmatist for a comparable intellectual pursuit; wouldn’t want to confuse or bore the audience, now... The result is a watered-down sci-fi love story that relies wholly on the cliché flashback device. Appallingly unoriginal, blatantly sexist, and mind-numbingly vague, Soderbergh’s Solaris is a typical specimen of what passes for profundity from the corrupted shit factory of Hollywood. His usual audience will be pleased.

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