Solaris was first of all a long and very dour film made in 1972 by the revered Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, so it was pretty daring for Steven Soderbergh to remake it in the present day with George Clooney in the all-important lead role of Kris (now Chris) Kelvin. It was a bit of an arthouse classic so it was even more daring of him to make it a better film.
Clooney plays a psychiatrist who at the start we're shown chairing group therapy sessions and walking through vaguely futuristic but above all grey streets on an Earth that seem permanently rain-sodden. An acquaintance of his working on a space station near the planet Solaris has sent a message back to earth saying Chris must come to save them because he's the only one who can understand the strange things happening up there now. So he makes the trip. Fans of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey who've now re-watched that film so many times they can get nothing new from it will be pleased to find here the same kind of slow, stately, beautiful shots of spacecraft floating through the black void. In fact I think the shots here are sometimes even more effective because the choice of music - dreamy, mesmerising electronic rhythms - enhances the visuals in a way Kubrick's playful 'Blue Danube Waltz' never did.
On the space station Clooney finds two rather disturbed crew members who can only partially explain what's been happening. When he goes to sleep the past come alive for him, just as it does for everyone else who's been on board the ship. In Chris' case that means seeing his dead wife, Rheya (Natasha McElhone). His mind goes back over the beginnings of their relationship, and we see them reach a point where he wants to marry her but she's stalling. He then dreams she's there on the space station, in the same room with him. He wakes. She is in the same room with him, though she's strangely vacant, and doesn't remember certain important facts, like her own death for one thing. McElhone, whose amazing angular beauty always seems to jump out of the screen, plays a neurotic English beauty and we see her side of the story too even though we're not sure she's even real; her memories go back over worrying pregnancy tests and dinner parties where she feels alienated from everyone there, especially her other half, Clooney.
Trying to work out what's going on, Clooney interviews the captain of the ship and she says she's lately been suffering 'depression, hypermania, agoraphobia, shock, fatigue, and denial'. So: it seems the planet Solaris has some kind of supernatural power for getting into people's heads and revealing their worst fears and feelings. 'If I can stop it, that means I'm smarter than it is' she says. But the main focus is always Clooney's feelings for his dead wife and when a member of the crew, a young stoner, says that when he sleeps he sees his brother (who it's implied is also dead), I thought: this is really a film about grief. The planet Solaris could be read as a manifestation of the psychological 'place' one needs to go to when confronting one's own feelings for a departed loved one. In the end Kris, the doctor and scientist, is the one who becomes most obsessive, and he wants to bring his apparition, his 'facsimile' of a wife, back with him to Earth. What happens in the last 15 minutes is quite confusing I think, but such confusion supports the idea that what we've seen all along should be read as metaphors for psychological states of mind. The ending doesn't seem to make sense if viewed any other way.