Has any film director rocketed through the ups and downs of success in such a short time than Steven Soderbergh? After soaring to critical accolades and Oscar nominations for Traffic and Erin Brockovich in 2000 and pocketing fistfuls of cash from Ocean’s Eleven in 2001, Soderbergh crashed and burned in 2002 with the merciless critical and commercial thumping of his personal DV project Full Frontal. Soderbergh’s latest project, arriving right on the heels of Full Frontal and his last before a self-imposed one-year sabbatical, is Solaris, a mystical science fiction drama starring George Clooney, who previously collaborated with Soderbergh on Out of Sight (1998) and Ocean’s Eleven. (Soderbergh and Clooney are also producing partners; their company Section Eight Ltd. has a producer’s credit on such films as Insomnia, Welcome to Collinwood, and Far From Heaven (all 2002).) Solaris may appear to be a remake of Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic 169-minute science fiction epic from 1972, but it’s officially a re-adaptation of Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem’s novel, the only cited source in the film’s credits.

Marketing Soderbergh’s Solaris to contemporary audiences has been challenging, to say the least. Science fiction fans are scratching their heads over a poster campaign featuring a lip-locked Clooney and co-star Natascha McElhone with a tagline (‘How far will you go for a second chance?) that looks suspiciously like a ruse for a sci-fi remake of Ghost (1990). Meanwhile arthouse fans, violently allergic to Hollywood remakes of classic films as it is, are even more on edge over seeing Tarkovsky’s cinema rejigged. Further, Soderbergh’s decision to plug in old buddy Clooney, who isn’t exactly A-list dramatic talent, as existential lead Kris Kelvin has them vigorously pressing the panic button. And the less said about the media-generated hullabaloo over Clooney’s bare ass the better.

Solaris was not well received in the US. It crashed and burned at the box office after a wide platform five-day Thanksgiving holiday release, earning an unprecedented straight-Fs at CinemaScore Online (www.cinemascore.com), a web site that samples the reactions of American audiences on a film’s opening night. Is Solaris so horrifically putrid that it rates even lower than the D and D- grades Joe Dirt (2001) received from male and female viewers 35-years-old and up? Absolutely not, and nowhere near so. It’s hard to imagine what American audiences were expecting from Solaris — perhaps a fiery, bombastic Event Horizon-style (1997) space actioner with flowing blood, furrowed brows, and geeked-out gear and effects? — but they clearly weren’t ready for a moody, intellectual film about love, guilt, and the pain of loss with the patina of a high-dollar European art film.

In Solaris, Kris Kelvin (Clooney) is a psychiatrist who treats patients for loss through group grief counseling. He’s notified that an acquaintance named Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) has transmitted a message to his attention from a space station near Solaris, a mysterious sea planet that had recently moved into the solar system. Without providing hard reasons, Gibarian urges Kelvin to travel to the space station to assist the crew, which includes Snow (Jeremy Davies) and resident physicist Helen Gordon (Viola Davis). Upon arrival, Kelvin discovers that Gibarian has committed suicide, and that Snow and Gordon are unstable and haunted by apparitions that come to them after sleeping. The source of the apparitions is Solaris, which has demonstrated a sentient ability to generate living beings from the subconscious of humans.

After dreaming of his late wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), whom we later discover committed suicide during their turbulent marriage, Kelvin wakes up and is startled by her living presence in his cabin. Alarmed and fearful, he dispatches her from the space station in a pod, but she soon reappears. The second Rheya is more inquisitive, struggling to understand who she is and where her memories come from. She eventually grasps that she is the blurred creation of Kelvin’s memory of the ‘real’ Rheya, most likely a distortion of her former true self. After finding out from Gordon that Kelvin dispatched her first incarnation, a deeply hurt Rheya tries to commit suicide by drinking liquid oxygen, but is ‘resurrected’ during violent self-healing convulsions. Ignoring the warnings of Gordon, who feels the beings should be destroyed, Kelvin prepares to begin a new life with Rheya, his love for her overwhelming any concerns about her origin or the consequences of her existence. But Rheya resists, questioning how she can maintain a true sense of self as the product of another’s guilt-ridden memory. With conflicting desires and external forces working squarely against them, will this uncertain, tragic couple find a destiny together?

Solaris serves quite well as a complementary and pleasantly divergent companion piece to its 1972 Russian predecessor while bringing qualities from French New Wave films from the previous decade, such as the minimalism of Jean Luc-Godard’s Alphaville (1965), and the female-obsessive males of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Along with the Jonze-Kaufman collaboration Adaptation, Solaris is one of the most audacious and stubbornly unclassifiable films to come out of the Hollywood studio pipeline in 2002. Soderbergh essentially strips down Tarkovsky’s Solaris to its bare chassis, injects it with a contemporary spin, and sprays on a sleek European art film aesthetic, eschewing all creative or narrative expectations but his own. I’ve always felt that the key theme of Tarkovsky’s Solaris is its observation of love, regret and reconciliation between a husband and wife, and Soderbergh’s Solaris makes this device its foundation and again puts Kelvin and Rheya’s complicated and deeply troubled marital relationship under the microscope. Tarkovsky’s heady film spends significant time on more ideas — the organic circularity and interdependence of earth and space, the inherent self-focus of humanity and its effect on our ability and desire to explore the unknown, existential questions about what it means to be human, etc. — but Soderbergh is content to focus on Kelvin and Rheya and leave the more philosophical and technical science fiction explorations of Tarkovsky’s film and Lem’s source novel on the back burner. Memory and nostalgia are important components to both films, and while Tarkovsky obliquely recalls memory through mirrors, video footage and classical artwork, Soderbergh effectively uses lucid non-linear editing (one of his most impressive talents) to seamlessly develop Kelvin and Rheya’s past and present side-by-side as the film moves forward. He also uses distinctive location-specific cinematography à la Traffic (Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer under the screen credit of ‘Peter Andrews’, a nod to his late father) to establish mood and to help the audience maintain its bearings.

Soderbergh’s most fascinating update of Solaris is his realization of Rheya as a self-aware creation filtered through Kelvin’s guilt instead of as the straight creation of Solaris as in Lem’s novel and Tarkovsky’s film. Soderbergh’s Rheya is a fascinating character, and my mind often wandered to current events as I contemplated her destiny during the film. Developments in human cloning, including the supposed birth of the first human clone baby ‘Eve’, is simmering in the news lately, and Solaris has interesting context as a cautionary warning about the human cost of connecting love, memory and emotion to a cloned physical form of a lost loved one. As a clone grows and matures, how would he or she be influenced by human memories of the ‘original’ person? From an ethical standpoint, is it fair to predetermine a clone’s destiny as a replacement or resurrection’ of a lost loved one? Is a clone obligated to love someone his or her predecessor loved? What happens when a clone is not given the free will to be someone different than the individual that came before them? While contemplating these questions, events surrounding the ‘visitors’ in Solaris take on a new light and makes Soderbergh’s update intriguingly timely in 2003.