Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is the German Democratic Republic's ultimate company man. So good at conducting interrogations and spotting liars he teaches new State Security ("Stasi") recruits how to do both and dedicates his life to watching and exposing "comrades" who aren't quite as loyal as they should be. But when he starts conducting surveillance on dashing playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Marie Sieland (Martina Gedeck) Wiesler finds himself getting caught up in their real-life drama--particularly after he discovers the true reason Dreyman has come under suspicion. As the stakes rise Wiesler's dedication to the Socialist Unity Party battles his growing sense of what honor truly is. The Lives of Others is full of strong performances with Muhe's at the top of the list. Resembling a German Kevin Spacey he conveys most of Wiesler's changing outlook through his large expressive eyes. As Wiesler's exposure to the color and passion of Georg and Christa-Marie's life underlines the stark emptiness of his own Muhe signals through slight changes in his character's rigid discipline much more is going on beneath the surface. Koch and Gedeck are also excellent. Georg and Christa-Marie's need for self-expression is constantly stifled by the pressure to be good party members and both actors--particularly Gedeck--make it clear what the personal cost of that conflict can be. In the supporting cast Ulrich Tukur does a nice job as Wiesler's secret police colleague/supervisor Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz turning what could have been a one-note performance into a role with unexpected nuances. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck--who grew up in West Germany but visited the East as a child with his parents--has said that he spent four years researching The Lives of Others and it shows. The stark impersonal nature of much of the socialists' daily lives has the stamp of authenticity as does the film's mood of constant fear and suspicion. By contrasting scenes set in Georg and Christa-Marie's eclectic lived-in apartment--a haven from the world of informants and efficiency--with shots of a solitary Wiesler eavesdropping via headphone von Donnersmarck shows how even a tenuous connection to the world of passion and art can transform a life. In the end it is the characters' most human instincts--be they good or bad--that determine their fate not the party's rules and regulations.
Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is asked to investigate the strange behavior of a small group of scientists aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The expedition has stopped all communication with Earth and mission captain Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) has committed suicide. Once on board the space station Kelvin discovers two surviving crewmembers who are suffering from extreme stress and paranoia brought on by studying the planetary body. He learns that Solaris can create physical personifications known as "visitors " which are drawn from the crew's subconscious memories. For Kelvin a "visitor" comes in the form of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who committed suicide years earlier. Soon enough he finds himself in the same nutty predicament as the crew and becomes fixated on the possibility he can change the events that lead to Rheya's death. The film based on Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel of the same name is not so much a sci-fi pic as it is a futuristic romance. It's a slow-building story that raises many questions without ever answering them including the planet's motives.
While Clooney delivers a soulful performance as the worrisome Chris Kelvin it might have been more interesting to establish his character without spelling out his past. Kelvin's wife Rheya is supposed to be a character so dark that flowers practically die when she walks into a room. While McElhone's portrayal of Rheya is not bad her morbidity comes more from the character's back story than the actress's performance; Rheya is suicidal and has an abortion hence she is a sinister being. Viola Davis plays Helen Gordon one of the two surviving crewmembers on the space station. Good performance but her character is too inconsistent. At the start of the film for example she is holed up in her quarters and refuses to come out. In the next scene however she divulges everything she knows to Kelvin in a very logical and calm manner. What happened to the paranoia the extreme stress? Jeremy Davies is the second crewmember Snow (perhaps aptly named because he seems almost as though he's actually on coke). Doing his best Crispin Glover Davies is the most irritating thing about the movie.
Solaris was first adapted as a feature film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 in a much longer and truer version of the book. Director/screenwriter Steven Soderbergh decided to delve deeper into Kelvin's relationship with his wife Rheya than necessary. Not a sci-fi director at heart Soderbergh whitewashes many of the book's technical details such as what constellation the space station is orbiting or anything pertinent about Solaris itself. He chooses instead to focus on Kelvin's troubled relationship with Rheya which is established through sappy flashbacks. But what goes on between the couple on the space station is much more compelling than their overly sentimentalized past. Because the new Rheya is created from Kelvin's mind her own memories are actually his; if he remembers they met on a train for example so will she. Eventually she begins to question her own existence and demands answers from Kelvin that he cannot provide. Soderbergh examines religious philosophical and spiritual issues in a not-so-subtle manner but leaves the film open to interpretation. Completely devoid of splashy special effects Soderbergh's Solaris is beautifully shot with a minimalist effect.