One very common mistake is labelling 'science fiction' as a genre. Like 'period pieces', 'science fiction' gives us the context/setting for a story rather than the tone of it - so films in this genre can be dramas, comedies, actioneers, horror, mystery, and so on.
One mix however very rarely employed (at least with a serious tone) is that of romance - "Solaris" is a deeply personal and philosophical look at losing love and accepting loss which just happens to be set aboard a space station.
Aside from the odd bit of techno talk, the obligatory FX establishing shot once every 7-8 minutes, and submarine-style walls with knobs and lights, this is pure drama. No flashy action, no comedy, a cast of less than half a dozen people, etc. There may be an alien presence but if so they have a tendency to look like hot Irish actresses or young boys.
This is why the film will hit a quite mixed reception from audiences and critics alike. "Solaris" is the ultimate multi-million dollar minimalist movie. There's a claustrophobic and barren feeling to proceedings with many scenes either scoreless or utilising strangely haunting percussion tunes by composer Cliff Martinez.
Both Clooney and McElhone deliver excellent performances as the lonely widower trying to deal with his wife's death and seeming return in space, whilst McElhone shines in both the various flashback scenes and during the Solaris-set dramatics as she struggles to come to terms with the unfamiliar mortality that has been thrust upon her.
Viola Davis is memorable as the doubting and strong-minded scientist of the bunch, Jeremy Davies does an annoying almost wild man routine, whilst the Solaris planet itself is an amazing special effect - an ethereal cloud of blue/pink light & cloud that's constantly moving and changing. Seriously Lightstorm should make it into a screensaver as combined with a foot long joint, a large couch and some snack food - its a great night in.
Film school students will go all gooey over the liberal exploration of themes of life, death, love, morality, second chances and 'cruel miracles' as the author called them. The story jumps between present, past, dream, reality and back again in various sequences right up until the end where all the weird jumps actually do make sense albeit in a somewhat fait accompli way.
The flashbacks are well shot and incorporated into the story and whilst we do get a 'greatest hits' style compilation showing the pair's history together we never really learn enough about why they chose each other and more importantly what lead to her death. However the way in which the script cleverly plays out not only his doubts but hers as well in regards to her reappearance make this a film worth seeing.
Soderbergh cleverly challenges and makes you think about the idea of how well do you really know other people and how emotion can overcome circumstance. This is very introspective and unusual filmmaking - especially from a US studio system and on this sort of budget. Its one that requires patience and an open mind, whilst it won't appeal to all - others will very much appreciate what its trying to accomplish.