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ORBITING 'SOLARIS' DESTINED FOR CRASH LANDING

Solaris ** (Out of four)

George Clooney and Natasha McElhone in Steven Soderbergh's version of Stanislaw Lem novel about a mysterious planet that takes over astronauts' lives.

Rated PG-13, now playing in area theaters.

"Solaris" is a mistake. A beautiful and very brave and entirely admirable one but still a mistake.

You knew that Steven Soderbergh's newest movie had the makings of a mass audience disaster the minute the channels of movie info-tattle started clogging with the "news" that the ever-so-brief sight of George Clooney's tush was causing enough of a ratings ruckus to cause the board to consider giving it an R. When a movie's only mass market selling point is the posterior of its star, you can bet that the boardroom types are scared to death of it.

And well they should be. "Solaris" is this season's "Vanilla Sky" - a failed art film that's being sold as a hot Saturday night at the multiplex.

Forget Clooney's micro-nudity. Forget the magnificent eyes of his co-star Natascha McElhone - which Soderbergh, quite rightly, dives his camera into for close-ups that seem to go on for minutes at a time.

This is what Soderbergh and Clooney's "Solaris" is: A condensed American adaptation of a 1972 Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky that was nearly three hours long and was itself based on a novel by Polish sci-fi master Stanislaw Lem.

Lem is one of the world's most intellectual writers, a man for whom the science in science fiction often leads the way, in all its intricacy and metaphysical implication. Tarkovsky, along with Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman, is one of the most intellectually concentrated and solemnly demanding of great film directors. His work abounds in long, long individual takes and slow, slow tempos.

Hopeful optimists sometimes call Tarkovsky's "Solaris" the "Russian "2001'." When it first made its way here in the mid-'70s, it was shown at half its nearly three-hour length.

Soderbergh's version with Clooney is only a little more than an hour and a half long. In truth, its first hour feels like a couple of days. It moves at about the tempo of a glacier melting. You don't do an adaptation of a Tarkovsky film unless you're fully ready to put on screen tempos that are molto adagio.

Tarkovsky, who died of lung cancer in Paris in 1986, once said in an interview, "my objective is to create my own world and these images which we create mean nothing more than the images which they are. We have forgotten how to relate emotionally to art."

Fellow dream-maker Ingmar Bergman said Tarkovsky's first film seen in the West - "My Name Is Ivan" from 1962 - "captures life as a reflection, life as a dream."

And all of that is what Soderbergh and Clooney are trying to do with this commercial movie. Admirable it may be, but it's deeply problematic, too. It's a space movie with some futuristic hardware and all but mostly it's about "life as a dream" with images you'll either relate to emotionally - or not.

Not, in my case.

Not until the final 10 minutes anyway.

So Clooney is a psychiatrist of the future who gets a call from a friend to investigate strange doings at a space station parked next to the planet Solaris. He finds his old friend a suicide when he gets there and the station inhabited by two people who've gone far off the beam - a woman who generally refuses to leave her room and a hippy-dippy freak who talks like a Haight-Ashbury head shop proprietor circa 1967 (a pretty funny performance by Jeremy Davies).

On his first night, he discovers what the problem is when you're camped out next to Solaris - your dreams are taken over by your past, which comes alive when you awaken.

Dr. Chris Kelvin (Clooney) awakens to find his long-dead beautiful wife next to him; her face is seen in Soderbergh's sumptuous intoxicated close-ups for the next hour. What happened to her? Why is Solaris doing this to its visitors? Can he take her home to Earth? Are these flesh and blood replacements for the dead or sinister mind-bending facsimiles?

Very Lem-like psychological stuff but in Soderbergh's version of Tarkovsky, not very clearly presented and even then at ultra-slow tempo. Missing entirely from this movie is the Lem-like sense that the planet Solaris is itself a giant ingeniously malevolent organism.

This is "life as a reflection, life as a dream."

You either "relate emotionally" or not.

I didn't until the very end.

It's not Clooney's fault. This may be his best performance on film. And McElhone is a vision, a true find.

But the hard, brutal truth is that if I hadn't been seeing "Solaris" for occupational reasons, I might well have walked out before finding out that it does indeed elicit some emotional reaction at the end.

You're on your own with this one.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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