Now, look, I'm not saying that Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" was a bit too long, but this adaptation of the same source material follows most of the same beats, except it's over an hour shorter. No, I liked Tarkovsky's interpretation of this tale, but, seriously, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a newer and slicker "Solaris", which you know has to be more exciting, seeing as how Steven Soderbergh is by no means known for making glacially slow films. Jokes aside, outside of the surprisingly kind of limp, but still decent third one, Soderbergh's "Danny Ocean" films are pretty fun, which, of course, gave me hope that I might find thorough entertainment value in this film, seeing as how it also stars George Clooney, and is about an "ocean" planet (Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk). Kidding aside, this is a romantic sci-fi drama that prominently features a planet made of ocean water, so are you really that surprised to find that James Cameron is at least producing this project? Well, to be honest, I was a little bit surprised to find that out, because this film is kind of cheap for a James Cameron production, and I will always remember that because as high profile as this film is, it still underperformed at the box office. Man, this baby lost $17 million at the box office, and I'd imagine that news made poor little Jimmy spit out his Shipwrecked 1907 Heidsieck champagne when he read about it while on the second round of his tri-annual personal cruise to the Bahamas. Well, Jim, my man, I can't entirely blame the people for not seeing this film, because while it is decent, it has plenty of problems.
The 1972 film which technically inspires this fellow adaptation of Stanisław Lem's classic sci-fi novel had its share of unique areas, but also got to be kind of formulaic, and let me tell you, the conventionalism in this story has most certainly not died down in 30 years, thus this film is also left to hits its share of tropes that make it predictable, even if you're not familiar with other interpretations of Lem's story, and yet, while this film tells us a bit too much of what we already know, it stands to say more. I opened up this article cracking jokes about how this film is a whole lot shorter than its 1972 counterpart, and sure, this effort is pretty comfortably tight in plenty of places, but at just about 100 minutes, this film trims a bit too much fat around some of this story's edges, resulting in expository shortcomings, and certain areas of undercooking which leave depths to be delivered rather ambiguously. The film's subtle approach to thematic and dramatic weight sometimes work considerably, but on the whole, there's something kind of frustrating about this film's not taking as much time as it should to really flesh out its vision, and yet, wouldn't you know it, even though the film gets to be too tight for its own good, it still makes time for some dragging. Needless to say, this film isn't quite as draggy as its over two-and-a-half-hour-long counterpart of 1972, but its structure often boasts the arty attitude of Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris", complete with overlong meditations upon nothing but nothing, made all the more aggravating by those classic Steven Soderbergh cold spells in atmosphere, established through quietness, if not all-out silence, behind dry air. The film gets to be too arty for its own good, and I must admit that when artistry gets really overblown, there is a slight breeze of pretense to break up Steve Soderbergh's ambition, which is noble, sure, but misguided in some places, delivering on questionable directorial moves, when not emphasizing plotting's other shortcomings, both consequential and natural. Soderbergh wants this film to be more than what it is, and I most certainly subscribe to such a sentiment, but unlike Soderbergh, I can't say that this worthy vision is spotless, as Soderbergh gets kind of carried away at times with his thoughtfulness, yet cannot obscure the conventionalism and undercooking with an overly steady pace, thus leaving the final product to fall short, almost into mediocrity. Of course, mediocrity does not quite claim this one, because no matter how flawed this film may be, what it does right it does well enough to hold your attention, or at least your eyes' attention.
This is a very minimalist sci-fi film, so there's not a whole lot of room to dazzle, but man, production designer Philip Messina delivers the best that he can, tossing in some subtly distinguished details within the handful of moments outside of the "Solaris Station" - within which this story primarily takes place - in order to sell you on this futuristic world, while the broader sets, particularly the "Solaris Station" set, boast such intricacy that it's hard not to be drawn into this film's environment. The designs of the film are near-dazzling in their sharpness, though that might just be Steven Soderb-oh, I mean, "Peter Andrews", because even though this film's cinematography is not as playful with color palettes as many other films lensed by Soder-I mean, "Andrews", Andrews compensates with a heavy tone that is unique and rugged, as well as with sparse lighting which plays with darker areas in imagery in a tasteful way that is consistently beautiful, and sometimes stunning. As with plenty of films shot by Andr-oh, forget it-Soderbergh, this effort looks so gorgeous in a way that has to be seen in order to be truly believed, and Cliff Martinez's seriously underused, but tasteful score, - flavored up by hypnotic electronic touch-ups - isn't too shabby either, thus leaving the artistry of this film to stand as almost enough to carry the final product, whose decency is perhaps more firmly secured by acting that is about as tasteful as the artistry. There aren't too many people in this minimalist drama, and what talents you do see don't come accompanied with as much material as they probably should have, but there is strong acting here, and it can primarily be found within our leads, as Natascha McElhone, like Natalya Bondarchuk in the 1972 show that she stole, delivers on an intensity that captures the anguish of the Rheya Kelvin character, while George Clooney's subtle intense captures the uncertainty and other dramatic layers of a man trapped in a claustrophobic environment with a love who he had lost and has returned in the most peculiar of ways. The performances aren't written to be as outstanding as the film's artistry, but like the artistry, the acting is impossible to ignore as a strength which carries the film quite a distance, but cannot craft a truly decent drama alone. Storytelling is messy, and Stanisław Lem's classic story concept is not weighty enough to handle too many blows from undercooking, bloating and overambition, but it is still reasonably worthy, with intriguing thematic depth that inspires a degree of immediate intrigue, reinforced by what is done right by Steven Soderbergh, as director, whose thoughtful storytelling has its share of controlled moments which effectively absorb thematic weight, and even dramatic weight, sometimes to an unexpectedly very moving degree that gives you a glimpse into what this very human and meditative drama could have been, and grows more recurring as the film goes along, until it all comes down to a pretty strong ending whose ambiguity genuinely works as thought-provoking. Were the film more fleshed out and more controlled in pacing, we would be seeing more of these highlights in storytelling and end up with a pretty rewarding film, but as things stand, effective moments break up consistent decency, which is more challenged than it should be by considerable storytelling issues, but ultimately reinforced enough by inspiration to stand firm, even if you do end up hoping for more than just decency.
Bottom line, the film has formulaic areas and undercooked areas, but is most dragged down by, well, dragging, achieved through aimlessly meditative moments, made all the more grating by atmospheric coldness that, with an air of overambition, distance your investment enough for you soak up the shortcomings that ultimately drive the final product to the brink of mediocrity, which is ultimately diverted by excellent production designs, gorgeous, if not breathtaking cinematography, strong performances by George Clooney and Natascha McElhone, and enough highlights in the thoughtful telling of an intriguing story for Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris" to stand as a decent sci-fi drama which could have been more, but still gets you by just fine.
2.5/5 - Fair