Solaris (1972)

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay: Fridrikh Gorenshtein & Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stainslaw Lem)
Stars: Natalya Bondarchuk (Hari), Donatas Banionis (Kris Kelvin), Jüri Järvet (Dr. Snaut), Vladislav Dvorzhetsky (Burton), Nikolai Grinko (Kelvin's father), Anatoli Solonitsyn (Dr. Sartorius)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1972
Country: Soviet Union
Solaris Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
SolarisAndrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a pulsating, frustrating, enigmatic science fiction masterpiece, a film of great metaphysical weight that demands multiple viewings and an open mind. It is a brooding, introspective work in which the vast reaches of space seem restricted in contrast to the scope of the human soul. Although based on the best-selling 1961 novel by the prolific Polish novelist Stainslaw Lem, who excelled at treating science fiction themes with critical and philosophical depth, this is a Tarkovksy film through and through, aesthetically dominated by his use of elegant camera movements and the long take and philosophically concerned with the human condition and issues of life and death.

At nearly three hours in length, Solaris is not an immediately approachable film. It starts slowly--for some, much too slowly--with a lengthy opening act that takes place on Earth. Here, we meet the main character, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist who is asked to go to a space station orbiting the distant planet Solaris because there have been reports of strange happenings from the station’s minimal three-man crew. Most of the action takes place at the small, wooden home of Kelvin’s father (Nikolai Grinko) and serves to establish the meaningfulness of existence on Earth, a theme not present in Lem’s novel. For Tarkovsky, these opening scenes were crucial to serve as counterpoint for the rest of the film, which takes place in the broken-down, technologically determined space station in the vast reaches of space.

Kelvin learns from one of his father’s oldest friends, Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who was a cosmonaut on the Solaris space station decades earlier, that there is something strange about the planet. Solaris, which is completely covered by an ocean, might be more than just a planet. The exact nature of this situation is left purposefully vague, as it will be the driving force of the narrative development once Kelvin leaves Earth.

When he arrives at the space station, Kelvin finds that all is not well. The station is still functional, but barely so. One of the three crewmembers who Kelvin knew personally is dead under mysterious circumstances. The other two men, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn), are paranoid and cryptic in discussing what has been happening. They keep telling Kelvin that he won’t understand it until it happens to him.

And, after he goes to sleep one night, it happens. Kelvin awakes to find his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who died 10 years earlier, in the room with him. She is not a hallucination--not a dream or a vision. Rather, she is a material entity; he can touch her, talk to her, tear her clothing. She is a ghost, but one with corporeality and a fractured sense of memory; she knows who he is, but she seems to have no recollection of ever having died. It is as if the last decade did not exist.

Yet, she is not Hari, and the nature of her existence becomes the lynchpin of the film’s central question: What is life? It turns out the ocean that covers Solaris--perhaps the whole planet itself--is sentient. It is like a giant mind with great powers that can read the minds of the men on the station and create physical embodiments of their deepest, most guilty feelings. For Kelvin, it is his wife who committed suicide a decade earlier. On one level, this is the most horrifying thing imaginable: guilty memories that gnaw at your soul made flesh and blood and threatening to destroy themselves all over again. Yet, on another level, it has the possibility of transcendence. Kelvin has the chance (or so he believes) to make up for his past mistakes, to create a new life with Hari. Is this Kelvin’s delusion or his chance for redemption?

The trouble is, the person in his room who looks and speaks like Hari is not his wife. Rather, she is the physical embodiment of his memory of her, and the film is at its most moving and introspective when she realizes this, thus becoming fully aware of what she is. Even more terrible than Kelvin and the others being faced with the embodiments of their guilty feelings is those embodiments coming to the realization of what they are. In a twist on Descarte’s famous proclamation “I think, therefore I am,” Hari comes to the full realization of her nature and, as a result, does not want to be.

Solaris, like Tarkovsky’s previous two films, Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966), was made in the Soviet Union at a time when artists had few freedoms. Tarkovsky was a deeply gifted filmmaker, a true visionary whom the Soviet bureaucrats tolerated because his films won awards at international film festivals and were popular in the West. Unlike those previous films, though, Solaris has very little to do with Russia. In fact, many critics suggest that it was his most popular film because of its universal nature.

In one sense, Solaris is about the limits of human moral conscience and the role of ethics in scientific discovery; at the same time, though, it is a deeply nostalgic film, one that looks back to a simpler time when technology didn’t rule the world and the limits of our universe were the oceans, not space. By avoiding any direct reference to the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky opened Solaris to multiple readings; it is not about any one culture, but rather about human kind as a whole, which gives it a scope and depth that is breathtaking and infinitely moving.

Solaris Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Solaris is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioRussian PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie
  • Nine deleted and alternate scenes
  • Video interview with actress Natalya Bondarchuk
  • Video interview with cinematographer Vadim Yusov
  • Video interview with art director Mikhail Romadin
  • Video interview with composer Eduard Artemyev
  • Documentary excerpt on Stanislaw Lem
  • Insert booklet with liner notes by essayist and novelist Phillip Lopate and a reprint of a 1977 newspaper article titled “Tarkovsky and Solaris” written by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 24, 2011

    Criterion’s high-definition transfer of Solaris was taken from the same source that was used on the 2002 DVD: a 35mm low-contrast print struck from the original negative. While the increased resolution has a profound effect, the big difference is that the black and white segments in the film, which were previously presented in monochrome, are now tinted blue as was the original intention according to cinematographer Vadim Yusov. This has been a point of contention for some time, and the incorrect presentation of those sequences on the DVD apparently stems from a misunderstanding between Criterion and Yusov. There has also been some additional digital correction of age, flicker, and dirt with technologies that were not available back in 2002, thus removing the slight bits of speckling and the occasional, barely perceptible vertical line that we saw on the standard def disc. Colors are strong and well-saturated throughout, and detail level is consistently high, although the overall look of the film is slightly soft (no doubt a result of the film stock used). The lossless PCM soundtrack was mastered from a 35mm optical soundtrack positive and digitally restored. The result is a nearly pristine soundtrack that, while limited by the technologies of its original recording, is still very effective. Tarkovsky used a minimalist approach to the soundtrack, but when it does come into play, particularly the rumbling electronic sounds used to aurally depict the Solaris ocean, it is quite impressive. The same goes for electronic pioneer Eduard Artemyev’s amazing ambient score, which was recorded on an ANS synthesizer, a device that photo-optically translates drawn images into sound.
    The extensive set of supplements that were included on the DVD are also included on the Blu-Ray. These include a screen-specific audio commentary by Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, coauthors of the 1994 book The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. As Tarkovsky scholars, Johnson and Petrie know a great deal about the director’s life, the social/cultural context in which he worked, and the formal and aesthetic details of his films. They offer a finely detailed and expertly argued analysis of Solaris and also set it within appropriate political and historical contexts, thus yielding a richer and more informed viewing experience. The nine deleted and extended scenes (totaling close to 25 minutes), which had been thought lost after Tarkovsky trimmed them before submitting the film to the Cannes Film Festival, came from a print discovered in the Mosfilm archive, which was clearly not in as good of shape as the print used for the feature, as it looks slightly worn and faded and has frequent speckling. Criterion also recorded nearly two hours of new video interviews with four of Tarkovsky’s most significant collaborators on Solaris (Tarkovksy died in 1986). First up is a 32-minute interview with Natalya Bondarchuk, who played Hari and was cited by Tarkovsky as being the best actor in the film (she was only 19 at the time). Still beautiful and radiant, Bondarchuk talks about how she got the coveted role, what it was like working with Tarkovsky, and the details of her death scene. Next is a 34-minute interview with Vadim Yusov, the film’s cinematographer who worked with Tarkovsky on his earlier films, as well. Yusov discusses his working relationship with Tarkovsky and also offers some intriguing insights into the film’s limited, but highly effective, special effects. Then we have a 17-minute interviews with the film’s art director, Mikhail Romadin, who talks about how he and Tarkovsky worked together to make a “down to earth” science fiction epic (there are also a few brief shots of some of his original concept art for the film). Lastly, there is a 21-minute interview with composer Eduard Artemyev, who discusses his contributions to the film’s musical score and sound effects. There is also a brief, five-minute excerpt from a Polish TV documentary on novelist Stanislaw Lem. It features interviews with Lem and a pair of scholars who discuss the novel Solaris and Lem’s dislike of Tarkovsky’s cinematic interpretation of it. The insert booklet contains the same liner notes by essayist and novelist Phillip Lopate and reprint of a 1977 newspaper article titled “Tarkovsky and Solaris” written by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who was a great admirer of the film and visited the set during production.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

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