DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Blu-ray (1972/2011)

A majestic exploration of the theme of spacemen dealing with unknown and different forms of intelligence.

Published on May 24, 2011

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Blu-ray (1972/2011)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Blu-ray (1972/2011)

Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis
Novel author: Stanislaw Lem
Music: Eduard Artemyev
Studio: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection 164 [5/24/11]
Video: 2.35:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 1080p HD color & B&W
Audio: Russian PCM mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: Commentary track by Tarkosky scholars Vida Johnson & Graham Petrie; 9 deleted & alternate scenes; Video interviews with Natalya Bondarchuk, cinematographer Vadim Yusov, art director Mikhail Romadin, composer Eduard Artemyev; Excerpt from documentary on Stanislaw Lem, Illustrated booklet with essay by critic Phillip Lopate and appreciation by director Akira Kurosawa
Length: 166 minutes
Rating: *****

This Soviet sci-fi epic was publicized at the time as their answer to Kubrick’s 2001, which Tarkovsky considered cold and sterile.  Actually the two films have much in common, though Tarkovsky clearly loads his film with heavy discussions about relationships, humanity, philosophy, even spirituality.  He felt his sci-fi adaption of Lem’s novel would get him past the difficult commissars who had to approve this expensive project – in spite of his reputation for being too “personal” – because they felt sci-fi was accessible to the masses. Later of course Hollywood did their version of Solaris, with Steven Soderbergh directing George Clooney – Tarkovsky’s original is far superior.

Tarkovsky’s body of filmic work takes some getting used to. He approaches time something like Mahler – you must become accustomed to a very different passing of time. He himself referred tongue-in-cheek to making “long, boring films.” He eschews the usual Eisenstein Soviet film style of montage editing and stretches out shots into lengthy statements. Polish sci-fi author Lem was unhappy with how Tarkovsky followed the general plot of Solaris but focused heavily on the relationship between astronaut/psychologist Kelvin and the “guest” personage the intelligent ocean of Solaris had manifested as his former wife Hari – who had committed suicide a decade earlier. Imprisoned by his past actions, Kelvin’s treatment of the “guest” Hari on the space station was similar to the way he had treated his actual wife. (Kelvin had been sent there to learn more about the strange messages the earth had been receiving from the Solaris space station.) Tarkovsky’s main interest was the human soul; although his life ended badly in exile and  he always struggled at directing his few films, it is surprising he didn’t run into even more hassles with the Soviet authorities for his spiritual interests. He even studied the Bible and it influenced his films. For example, the ending of Solaris is inspired by the story of the Prodigal Son. And the Catholic Church gave Tarkovsky a special spirituality award for Solaris – though the commissars never revealed it.

The lovely cinematography of Vadim Yusov is well rendered in the Blu-ray transfer, and the cinematographer discusses it at length in one of the interviews. As always, the Criterion extras are most worthwhile. And that includes the printed booklet essays. Soundtrack composer Artemyev relates in his interview the same complaints about Tarkovsky not telling him specifically what he wanted in the way of music that most film composers complain of. Tarkovsky even at first wanted his film with no music at all – just nature sounds. But then Artemyev found out Tarkovsky revered Bach and came up with some music that pleased the director. Bondarchuk talks about her relationship with Tarkovsky and the making of the film – she was original turned down as playing Hari. Tarkovsky and Yusov realized that though their film was a Soviet response to Kubrick’s 2001, their special effects people couldn’t match the rocket ships and outer space images of 2001. Therefore they concentrated on the relationships of the four main characters on the space station, and in fact there is no footage at all of Kelvin’s rocket takeoff to go to the Solaris space station, and his arrival there is only shown as the station above the ocean planet getting slowly larger – we never see Kelvin’s ship. Also, it is never shown at the end how he gets down to the planet surface from the space station.

There is also discussion of making an encephalograph and of bombarding the surface of Solaris with radiation, but neither is shown at all. One is left with a number of questions at the end of the film, such as what happened to the other 83 crew members of the damaged but still operating space station? There are only two odd-acting ones left when Kelvin arrives – a third had just committed suicide.  The sound is mono – rather surprising for a big-budget widescreen sci-fi film in the 70s – but then most Russian films have quite poor sound.  Solaris is still a majestic exploration of the theme of spacemen dealing with unknown and different forms of intelligence.

– John Sunier




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