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Why Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Solaris’ Sets the Standard for Movie Remakes

“I could tell you what’s happening, but I don’t know if that’d really tell you what’s happening.”

Steven Soderbergh could have done anything he wanted after the hugely successful trifecta of “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic,” and “Ocean’s Eleven.” What he did was remake Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris,” perhaps the headiest science-fiction film ever made — and one that didn’t necessarily seem suited to his sensibilities. The film has its defenders 15 years later — Barry Jenkins expressed his love for it just last week — but is rarely mentioned in discussions of the versatile filmmaker’s best.

Maybe that’s because it’s something of an outlier in his already varied filmography. Soderbergh has dabbled in genre pictures as often as any other filmmaker not specifically thought of as a genre director, from the “Ocean’s” trilogy and “Haywire” to “Contagion” and now “Logan Lucky,” but his sole foray into sci-fi didn’t leave much of an impression. A box-office disappointment that received lukewarm reviews, “Solaris” seems to have been taken as a one-off and quickly forgotten about.

That’s unfortunate, as it’s one of the eclectic auteur’s most moving films.

Barely half as long as the 1972 film on which it’s based, this “Solaris” is the novella to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Russian novel. Rather than the spiritual weight of a Bach prelude, Soderbergh uses the light electronic touch of frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez. “Solaris” represents everything a remake can and should be, echoing the original but ultimately resonating on its own frequency.

It’s also only incidentally sci-fi — Soderbergh isn’t interested in the mechanics of space travel or speculating about how Solaris itself came to be. The film’s almost lackadaisical approach to typical genre trappings is jarring, and there’s an unadorned vibe to some of the most important set-pieces.

Those involve the semi-sentient ocean planet for which the film is named and the unfortunate souls caught in its orbit. George Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a psychiatrist sent to reestablish contact with (and, if all goes well, rescue) the three astronauts aboard a space station researching Solaris. One of them is already dead by the time he arrives.

Natascha McElhone and George Clooney in Solaris

Shortly thereafter, he’s issued a vague and troubling warning by one of the two surviving crew members (Viola Davis): “Until it starts happening to you, there’s really no point in discussing it.” But what is it, exactly? He finds out upon waking from a troubled sleep the next morning, when he finds his dead wife (Natascha McElhone) next to him in bed. Seemingly alive and well, she’s one of several manifestation of Solaris’ unique ability to project people’s deepest connections back at them in flesh-and-blood form.

Almost everything that follows has the feel of that moment when you’ve stopped dreaming but haven’t yet fully woken up and everything in your blurred sight seems strange, almost alien. Jeremy Davies, in a prelude to his equally out-there performance on “Lost,” is inspired as a spacefarer gone loopy from too much time hovering above Solaris; Davis likewise shows flashes of the brilliant performances for which she’s now known.

And then there’s McElhone, whose inspired portrayal of the dearly departed Rheya lends the film much of its otherworldly power. Insofar as she’s essentially playing Solaris, she’s also the film’s true star: Everything revolves around her. Not long after her ghost — or whatever it is — appears, she realizes that she isn’t quite herself. As for her true nature, she’s just as unenlightened as Chris.

One thing she isn’t is malicious. Rheya isn’t Solaris in corporeal form; she’s its unwitting creation. As memories of her life — and, more pressingly, her suicide — flood back, she becomes increasingly unmoored. As much of the film takes place in their shared headspace as it does aboard the space station orbiting Solaris; crucially, this Rheya is based on Chris’ memories of her, not her own experiences of being alive. There are gaps in her being that can never be filled.

Flashback scenes set on earth have a bronze tone to them, as though everything there has faded like an old statue. We catch fleeting glimpses of Chris and Rheya’s romance, both its passionate rise and tragic fall, with hushed dialogue that almost feels born of a dream and a shared fixation on Dylan Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”

Death may have no dominion, but Solaris does. Its gravitational force is massive, and both it and Soderbergh’s film are easy to get lost in. There’s an anesthetizing comfort to accepting its version of reality, one that shields you from the past while preventing you from entering the future. As for whether to accept it, one of the planet’s creations says it best: “There are no answers, only choices.”

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