20 years ago, one of the best sci-fi movies of the 21st century was a box office bomb |  JOE.ie

20 years ago, one of the best sci-fi movies of the 21st century was a box office bomb | JOE.ie

The film also famously received a rare F-grade from CinemaScore.

It’s not often that films are associated with as much prestige as the 2002 sci-fi drama Solaris.

The film, released on November 27, stars George Clooney as Dr. Chris Kelvin, a near-future widowed psychiatrist who is mysteriously summoned to a space station orbiting Solaris, a newly discovered alien planet.

When he arrives at the station, he is horrified to discover numerous dead crew members as well as two survivors (played by Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis) behaving erratically.

Initially confused, Chris eventually realizes that Solaris has the ability to manifest versions of relatives of the space station’s crew members – referred to as “visitors” – including the psychiatrist’s long-dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone).

When the film hit theaters, Clooney reunited with Ocean’s Eleven director Steven Soderbergh, who also recently directed the Oscar-winning films Erin Brockovich and Traffic.

The project was also helmed by legendary blockbuster filmmaker James Cameron (Aliens, Titanic), who eventually produced the film and advised Soderbergh throughout production.

The film was also an adaptation of the novel of the same name by author Stanisław Lem. Before Soderbergh took up the story, the book had previously been brought to screens via a critically acclaimed 1972 film by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, who is considered by many to be one of the finest filmmakers of all time.

Given all of this, it’s fair to say that the anticipation for the film was pretty high. However, the film was a disappointment at the box office, grossing just $30 million on a budget of $47 million.

And while some critics were kind to Solaris – the late and great Roger Ebert was one of its protagonists – certain viewers reacted hostile to it, with the film earning a rare F-grade from CinemaScore, a market research firm that monitors audience reactions to films made by it Survey.

Looking back at Solaris 20 years after its release, it’s clear that its failure at the box office and the initial negative reaction it garnered from moviegoers had little to do with its quality.

For one, it retains the incredible premise of the novel and Tarkovsky film – a group of astronauts observing a planet who find the celestial body is looking back into them, plumbing the depths of their subconscious.

Like the 1972 original, the 2002 film eschews the kind of bombastic action or horror one might expect from a sci-fi story, instead emphasizing the emotional states of its characters.

Furthermore, both versions take a minimalist and down-to-earth approach to their fantastical story, and feel like what could actually happen if people were faced with such a situation.

A poster for the 1972 Solaris release

However, what separates Soderbergh’s approach to the story from Tarkovsky’s—aside from cutting nearly 70 minutes off the original’s whopping 166-minute runtime—is that it places Chris and Rheya’s relationship at the heart of the story. As such, the film is much more emotional and romantic.

2002’s Solaris begins with a series of scenes in which we see Clooney’s Chris in various locations – his house, his office, a train, a busy street – in which he appears almost completely isolated from the rest of humanity.

“Even before he goes into space, he’s already in space psychologically in a way,” says Cameron of the character in the DVD commentary for the film starring him and Steven Soderbergh (who is well worth a listen for cinephiles, given his incredible revealing is the film and filmmaking in general).

As the film progresses we learn that Chris has retired after never quite getting over the death of Rheya, who took her own life after an argument.

However, thanks to Solaris, Rheya shows up alive on the space station with no memory of her death. However, this is where the process really becomes mind blogging in that great sci-fi way.

Among the many questions asked are: Is this really Rheya or just a version of Rheya constructed from Chris’s memory of her?

And given his perception of the relationship as tainted by tragedy, does that mean that if he and this version of Rheya were to start a romantic relationship, it would inevitably end badly too?

And why does Solaris manifest these beloved ones? And do the loved ones who reappear have some devious, nefarious motive?

Clooney does some of his best work of all time as the haunted, rational Chris, who is initially terrified to see his dead wife alive again before coming to see the strange phenomena as a second chance for the couple.

McElhone – who recently returned to screens in season five of The Crown – is wonderful too, playing essentially two different characters – the Rheya Chris knew from Earth and the one who shows up on the space station who is beginning to question her existence.

Also among the leads is the excellent Jeremy Davies as Snow, who at first looks like comic relief – at one point he muses to the visitors, “I wonder if they can get pregnant”. However, there is more to the character than meets the eye.

Viola Davis is also her typically confident self in one of her earliest starring roles, in which she stars with Clooney’s character as Dr.

At the same time, virtually every shot in the film is beautifully composed and edited by Soderbergh (in addition to writing and directing the film, he edited under a pseudonym and served as cinematographer).

Often the dominant color in scenes, blue reinforces the sense of sadness, along with composer Cliff Martinez’s swooning, melancholic, electro-tinged score.

Clip about thepetrosian

Despite all these great qualities, however, Solaris was released after a series of more traditional blockbuster sci-fi movies like Alien: Resurrection, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Independence Day, The Fifth Element, and Starship Troopers.

And given that Solaris intentionally eschews car chases, gunfights and killer aliens in favor of a “journey into the subconscious,” Soderbergh acknowledged that it would always be difficult for viewers to sell.

To entice viewers to see it, the trailers were cut to make it seem more action-packed.

So it’s likely that marketing Solaris as a more straight-forward genre film led to many angry viewers and bad buzz after the premiere.

In the DVD commentary mentioned above, Cameron and Soderbergh reflected on this and shared the following exchange.

James Cameron: I don’t think people expected the film to be so emotional and sparse in every other way, apart from that, apart from the relationship [between Chris and Rheya].

Steven Soderbergh: It was a difficult thing for a lot of people because it’s so lean in that way… going against the grain. I think looking back, people needed more preparation for that.

The fact that the film was only done very, very close to the release date meant that maybe we should have pushed, maybe we should have had more time to show the film and develop a campaign that would give people a feel for it gives experience they would make because it was difficult to fit the film into a poster, trailer or TV spot.

James Cameron: We looked at posters and said, ‘That’s part of it, but it’s not the essence.’

Steven Soderbergh: No, I don’t think we ever fully resolved it.

Yet 20 years after its release and now unburdened by expectations, Solaris awaits to be rediscovered as a beautiful and haunting sci-fi gem by those who may have panned it in 2002.

Solaris is now available to watch at home on Google Play, Rakuten TV and Sky Store.


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