Philosophy in the stars

"Solaris" is the latest evidence that Steven Soderbergh's filmmaking career is as action-packed and suspenseful as any of his movies.

This isn't the first time he's released two features in a single year. His "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic" arrived within a few months of each other, and "Solaris" comes on the heels of "Full Frontal," his not-so-stellar summer offering.

More important, he's a director who's impossible to pin down. He helped launch the modern indie-film movement with "sex, lies & videotape," went wildly avant-garde with "Schizopolis," and won an Oscar for "Traffic," to mention just a few of the zigzags he's taken viewers through.

My guess is that his next move will be a hasty return to the big-star territory of "Erin Brockovich," to show Hollywood he's still bankable after the underwhelming box-office performance of "Full Frontal" and, I regretfully predict, "Solaris."

But you have to salute a filmmaker who's willing to take the kind of artistic risks Soderbergh has racked up this year. "Solaris" is intuitive and idiosyncratic to its bones, and while that's not a formula for commercial success, it should entice moviegoers looking for a break from big-studio films.

"Solaris" takes its story from Stanislaw Lem's brilliant science-fiction novel about a crew of astronauts sent to investigate a mysterious planet that's actually a living entity with powers mere humans can't begin to grasp.

Its method of communicating with the earthlings - if that's really its purpose - is to haunt them with strange visitors, perfect replicas of people they had troubled relationships with in their earlier lives.

This forces the crew members to confront emotional issues they'd thought were long behind them. It also raises deep philosophical questions, blurring the boundaries between past and present, reality and illusion, life and death.

Soderbergh takes many of his filmmaking cues from the 1972 version of Lem's novel, directed by Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, who turned out a masterpiece despite having to distort parts of the story to please the ideological whims of Soviet censors.

Tarkovsky's film was a cinematic response to Stanley Kubrick's great "2001: A Space Odyssey," designed to confront psychological and spiritual conundrums Tarkovsky felt Kubrick hadn't dealt with.

Strong echoes of both Tarkovsky and Kubrick surge through Soderbergh's movie, which breaks every rule of Hollywood filmmaking except the one of choosing a major star - handsome George Clooney - to play the leading role.

Its mood is slow, quiet, and dreamlike. This gives it a persistently offbeat tone even when it takes on familiar sci-fi themes, including the question of whether synthetic humans are as "real" as the people they're patterned on.

In this area, "Solaris" is a natural successor to pictures such as "Blade Runner" and "A.I. - Artificial Intelligence," which it occasionally recalls.

None of this will comfort Clooney fans who want to see him run the usual gamut of movie-star maneuvers.

It doesn't help that Twentieth Century Fox is promoting the picture as a regular space opera, with James Cameron's name in huge letters (the "Titanic" mogul was one of its producers) and ads that make it look like a steamy love story, to boot.

The film's real appeal won't be to Clooney fans or adventure buffs, but to moviegoers who enjoy thinking about compelling questions with no easy answers.

Near the end, one character asks another if they're alive or dead, and the other responds, "We don't have to think that way anymore."

If this sounds like a line you'd like to ponder after you've left the theater, "Solaris" is the movie for you.

Rated PG-13; contains low-key violence and sex.

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