Whilst the Russian original is an epic and demanding film, Soderbergh's work should not be considered a remake. The director himself considers it his own interpretation of the book, quite apart from the earlier film. Because of this, the two should not be compared.
If you hated Alien 3 because it didn't have any guns or 2001 because the ending was confusing, do not waste your time with Solaris. It is not for you.
Conceptually, the story is standard psychological sci-fi fare, with simple but effective theological and philosophical themes. In this respect it breaks little or no new ground over the Tarkovsky predecessor. It has elements of romance, thriller, and drama, all necessarily set in sci-fi land, as the setting is integral to the storytelling.
Visually, the Solaris future is a conservative, believable vision, reminiscent in look to that of Gatacca. Solaris space is a minimal, beautiful place to be. Not dirty and used like the celebrated Alien 'space trucker' look, Solaris vessels are gleaming, intricate and stylish, but seem to have been designed by engineers rather than artists, such is the practical realism. Their design is complemented by some of the best CG spaceship effects I have seen (incredible that it has taken this long for computer graphics to look as good as the model-based technology of 2001, Star Wars and Aliens in the 1960s and 70s).
Solaris, the planet itself, is a clever piece of art, seemingly evidencing a degree of emotion by its colouring and detail, as no doubt was the intention. In the commentary to the DVD it is mentioned that many of the lingering shots of the planet were cut, which may have been necessary for the pacing of the film, but I found every shot an absorbing spectacle and would have enjoyed more.
The sets and costumes also retain the sense of engineering realism combined with beauty. Soderbergh's eye for detail is evident here, as everything has a purpose and look that fits perfectly with the overall feel. Somehow, this look is original and avoids many of the clichés we come to expect of sci-fi mise-en-scene.
Channel Four recently showed this on UK television and billed it along the lines of a 'George Clooney Sci-Fi Romance'. A tenuous interpretation, perhaps, but you can see why they did it. Whilst Clooney adds Hollywood star appeal, fans will be slightly disappointed, not because his work here is in anyway weak, but because he is understated, convincing and very un-Hollywood. With Solaris he adds another fine performance to an already commendably diverse filmography.
Natascha McElhone too plays a difficult, emotive role without resorting to melodrama. The small supporting cast doesn't put a foot wrong, with a delightfully odd but subtly creepy performance from Jeremy Davies worthy of note.
Solaris is slow, abstract, haunting stuff. The direction is subtle, dare I say almost Kubrick-esquire. The camera work is non-intrusive, solid stuff without gimmick (apart from a touch of shaky-cam in the restaurant scene where Kelvin meets Rheya) or overstatement.
Add to this a beautiful, timeless score by Cliff Martinez and you have one of the better psychological sci-fi movies ever made.
The majority of people will hate Solaris. Let them. Let them have instead the mindless Hollywood trash released every week and keep this treasure for yourself.