After the self-indulgent train-wreck that was Full Frontal, Steven Soderbergh reunites with George Clooney, with whom he previously made Out of Sight and Ocean’s 11, his most pleasurable movies in my humble opinion. Once again, Soderbergh taps into Clooney’s considerable wit and charm to irresistible effect… but only for a few flashbacks. Clooney only gets to be easygoing for a small part of “Solaris”, otherwise most concerned with being a solemn adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel, which had already been filmed in 1972 by Andrei Tarkovsky. The plot revolves around Chris Kelvin (Clooney), a psychologist still grieving for his late wife (Natascha McElhone) who is summoned by an old friend (Ulrich Tukur) to the mysterious planet Solaris, where strange phenomena have been happening. Indeed, soon after he arrives Kelvin finds himself face to face with his wife Rheya. Is this for real? Is she alive? Is she even human?

These are some of the questions “Solaris” explores but deliberately doesn’t quite answer, keeping things interestingly ambiguous. Soderbergh, acting as writer, director and cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) has made a very brainy, non-commercial film, for better or worse. I appreciated the sobriety with which the science-fiction elements are introduced, with the characters (and the film) taking all the cool design and innovations for granted instead of showing them off like expensive special effects. I also liked how Solaris itself is a protagonist (antagonist?), the electric purples and pinks of its surface ominously supervising events. Composer (and former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer) Cliff Martinez also does a great job, his post-rock score perfectly heightening the dialogue-free sequences.

And then there’s the flashbacks to Chris and Rheya’s life together back on Earth, clearly the best thing in the film. Soderbergh and Clooney deliver another killer seduction scene as sexy and smart as the one with J-Lo in Out of Sight. I love how the sexual tension builds as Clooney and McElhone exchange looks, and we get priceless dialogue when he finally walks up to her:

Rheya- Don’t blow it.
Chris- (pause) You start.
Rheya- I already did…

Hot stuff, not to mention how charismatic they both are. The glimpses of their couplehood that follow are much affecting, form great sex and conversation to fights and growing distance up to Rheya’s tragic demise. I wish I could say that the rest of the film builds on this great stuff and offers a satisfying payoff, but it doesn’t. Rheya and Chris’s mind-boggling space reunion is anything but emotionally moving. It’s cold, and weird, and slow, and dark… That’s what the source material calls for, I get it, it’s supposed to be high-concept and philosophical and all that… But even on these grounds it doesn’t quite pan out. We could have certainly done without Jeremy Davies’ obnoxious stoner dude and Viola Davis’ oh-so-serious scientist, and the B-movie twists and superfluous voice-over of the third act certainly don’t help. There is a truly memorable love story somewhere in “Solaris”, unfortunately it’s buried under much 2001-ish pretensions.