(PG-13) 3 1/2 stars There should be a sign posted by theater box offices that says, "Forget the misleading advertising campaign and the contrived controversy over its rating; Solaris is an art film. A difficult art film. D-I-F-F-I-C-U-L-T. It is slowly paced and raises many questions while providing few answers. It may make your head hurt. Proceed at your own risk."
At least then filmgoers would have a fighting chance. The first thing most people heard about the movie was that the ratings board had initially given it an R, but director Steven Soderbergh then made a personal appeal and convinced them to award it a PG-13 instead. In fact, the production contains nothing more daring than two shots of George Clooney"s pleasant-looking fanny; images so innocuous that, were they to appear in NYPD Blue, would scarcely even warrant a parental warning. The whole farce was whipped up to convince potential viewers that the film would be some racy affair. It is not. Then there was the formal ad campaign, which made the movie look like a traditional love story. Indeed, a love story is central, but the ads neglect to even hint that it takes place on a space station, between a grieving widower and what appears to be his dead wife. Last weekend the film opened nationally and visitors polled as they left the theater gave it an average score of "F." Mass audiences hated Solaris even more than they hated Punch-Drunk Love, another art film the studios tried to shove down the throats of general audiences with misleading advertising. Of course, an honest ad campaign is no guarantee than audiences will embrace a film (I"m still getting e-mails from people furious - FURIOUS - that I gave Punch-Drunk Love four stars), but I can"t help but believe that more adventurous cinemagoers would be willing to meet Soderbergh half-way if only they knew what they were in for. Soderbergh"s Solaris was adapted from the 1961 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, which also inspired the revered 1972 film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky that I have never managed to sit all the way through, despite several attempts. (SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVEALS THE PLOT SET-UP) Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a psychologist based in Seattle not too many years from now. Kelvin, still grieving over the death of his wife, receives a video message from his old friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), mission commander on the distant space station Prometheus, imploring him to come and help with an unspecified problem onboard. He arrives at Prometheus, orbiting the planet Solaris, only to learn that his friend is dead and the remaining crewmembers are a mess. Station shrink Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis, as good in her more aggressive role here as she is as the maid in Far from Heaven) has barricaded herself in her quarters and Snow (Jeremy Davies from Going All the Way and Secretary, somehow managing to make his twitch and stammer shtick work yet again) shifts about, muttering things like, "I could tell you what"s happening here, but I don"t know if that would really tell you what"s happening here." Thanks, Snow. Kelvin finds himself in the thick of the weirdness when, after dreaming of his late wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone, the "other woman" in The Truman Show), he wakes up and finds Rheya, or something that looks and sounds incredibly like her, in his room. He soon learns that each person on the space station also has a visitor who shouldn"t be there (END SPOILERS). Don"t expect the film to clear everything up. Various theories about the "guests" are voiced, but no answers are given. Soderbergh, it appears, has little interest in the sci-fi aspects of the story (any genre fan can easily come up with their own explanations). Rather, he muses on love, mortality, miracles, second chances, the nature of identity, etc., while deconstructing the relationship between Chris and Rheya. Handle it all how you will. I chose to savor George Clooney, who just keeps getting better. Beyond his acting ability, his screen presence is fascinating; the quiet authority in his voice, the way he uses that benign smile to maintain a bit of distance and how whatever emotion he projects is tempered by the sadness in his eyes. Funny about his collaborations with Soderbergh - whether surrounded by the intricate storyline of Ocean"s Eleven or the minimalist plot of Solaris, his character remains essentially the same: a screwed-up guy just trying to find a way to get back the woman he lost.