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The Criterion Collection presents
Solaris (1972)

"Earth should not send men like you into space, you know. There are many fragile things up there!"
- Kelvin's father (Nikolai Grinko)

Review By: Dan Lopez  
Published: February 18, 2003

Stars: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet, Anatoli Solonitsyn
Other Stars: Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Nikolai Grinko
Director: Andrei Tarkovski

Manufacturer: DVCC
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some violence and language)
Run Time: 02h:48m:46s
Release Date: November 26, 2002
UPC: 037429172124
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A+A-B+ A-

DVD Review

Anyone who has seen a film by Andrei Tarkovsky has, in a sense, been inducted into a special group of people who have been immersed in his talent for powerful filmmaking. He is also one of the most important directors in the history of world cinema, in my opinion, and his works have attained a certain following that approaches religious proportions. Every Tarkovsky film I've ever seen has simply blown me away. I've felt completely exhausted by not only the philosophical and dramatic power of the piece, but by the aching attention to artistic detail that makes his work visually stunning. His 1972 film, Solaris, is no different, although it is arguably Tarkovsky's most elaborate production in terms of sets, special effects, and overall design. Based on a novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem (upon whose work he would also base Stalker, in 1979), it is perhaps his most accessible film, but it is also one of his bleakest and most unsettling. It is an eerie, mysterious, and haunting story that mixes both compelling human drama with a very heavy underlying sci-fi element.

Set in a nondescript future, the story concerns Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who, as the film begins, has been asked to travel to a deep space station to determine whether the last remaining three crew members are stable enough to continue their mission. What makes the situation strange and difficult is that the station is a base that orbits a mysterious planet (known as Solaris) that is composed of nothing but a weird, pulsating ocean. The planet has resisted any attempts at successful exploration and after a disastrous event in which several crew members lose their lives, the remaining three scientists are now out of contact with Earth. A surviving crew member gives his report, but it's a weird hallucination about varied images and experiences which no one takes seriously, not even Kelvin. Once on board the station, Kelvin encounters a disheveled mess of a space craft, and his old friend, Dr. Gibarius, is dead. The remaining two scientists, Sartorius and Snaut, can only speak in weird riddles and veiled threats about Kelvin not understanding what he's in for.

Disoriented and disturbed by what he has found on board Solaris station, Kelvin enters further into pseudo-madness when he awakens one day to discover his late wife, Hari, now shares his room with him. Where she came from, he has no idea, but she is flesh and blood. He soon discovers what has happened on board the station: that the planet Solaris is somehow taking subliminal thoughts from the astronauts and turning them into reality, thus distorting their mental state and completely confusing them. What should the men do? Live out their lives amongst the weird flotsam and jetsam that Solaris continually summons from their minds? Or should they enter the proposed final phase of the mission and bombard the surface of Solaris with radiation, in an attempt to find out what makes it "tick." Kelvin loves his wife, but at the same time, he understands, to his horror, that the wife he has on board the station is not real, and not truly the same woman, but rather a copy created by an alien intelligence beyond understanding.

There are deep themes here, and Tarkovsky manages to balance them quite well without losing control of the entire project. If anything, Solaris is a disturbing portrait of "first contact" with an alien intelligence that's neither hostile nor friendly, it simply is; it does what it apparently deems necessary, but in the process, who is truly studying whom? The scientists, when it comes down to it, are not doing the work; the work is being done on them. At least, I feel that's one of the layers here. The production also accomplishes an amazing level of immersion into the world of the Solaris station with excellent sets, strewn with the wreckage of "visitors" from the subconscious. They also, however, reflect the surrealistic, artistic tone that most of Tarkovsky's highly-visual films represent. It is ethereal and beautiful, while it is also extremely dark and disturbing. Solaris is not a neat, tidy sci-fi story, but rather a deeply morose journey into psychological oblivion. That might sound extreme, and to an extent it is, but it's also a highly entertaining. Solaris is, no doubt about it, an "art" film that burns the brain cells—in a positive way—as it exercises your imagination and your own philosophical nature, leaving its viewers with something to discuss for many nights to come. It has stayed with me since I first saw it back in 1990, and it will undoubtedly stay with you.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Two words: Absolutely Gorgeous. I cannot recall Solaris having ever looked this good, and the transfer on this DVD is simply beautiful. The most obvious change is a considerable reduction in the original source print issues such as scratches, holes, frame-jumps and other problems found in older films. While there are still a few problems here and there, the massive amounts of visual artifacts (from the original print) present in previous versions I've seen are kept to a minimum. On top of the cleanup, the resolution is greatly enhanced by the DVD format, thanks to the anamorphic transfer. The crispness and sharpness of the film is maximized while still keeping the subtle cinematography intact. Colors are wonderfully accurate and glowing, but at the same time, the black-and-white and sepia-toned sequences (the film alternates between all three) are just as impressive. The grain has also been reduced. In general, it's a transfer that seems to allow the viewer to enjoy the positives about the visuals while reducing the negatives to almost nothing.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoRussianyes


Audio Transfer Review: While the disc uses the original Russian mono audio, this shouldn't disappoint Solaris fans, as the audio seems to have been cleaned up just as well as the video. I recall distinct audio problems in the film in previous incarnations, especially pops and skips at certain points (certainly at reel changes). These are gone or greatly reduced in this version, and the dialogue is amazingly crisp, despite the limited frequency range. Despite the range of sound effects and ambient audio (usually to enhance the mood of certain scenes), nothing rattles or blasts out of the center channel as if it was badly engineered or collapsing in on itself. The bass and treble aspects are balanced just right, so that the mono track works well.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
9 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by ida Johnson and Graham Petrie, co-authors of the book The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. New cast and crew interviews.
  2. Excerpt from a documentary on author Stanislaw Lem
Extras Review: It's hard to imagine fitting and effective extras to go along with such a unique film, but Criterion manages to deliver some interesting supplements. The first disc, which houses the film, contains a commentary track by authors Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, who wrote a book on Tarkovksy and, for all intents and purposes, are expert Tarkovsky scholars. Much like a film class or seminar on cinema, the commentary track is far from casual, and is, instead, read in segments by the authors from their own material. To be honest, part of me liked the commentary and part of me hated it. While it's extremely educational and very focused, I usually dislike when people make their own interpretation the "authoritative" view on a subject. The metaphors and symbolism to be found with Solaris are almost better found by your own eyes rather than having every minor piece of potential symbolism pointed out by these authors. They are passionate and involved, there's no question about that, I just think some people might find the commentary much too analytical.

The second disc starts things off with a collection of nine extremely rare, and only recently found, deleted scenes and alternate takes from the original print of Solaris before Tarkovsky cut the film for its premiere at Cannes in 1972. There are no radical changes to the film as it stands, but there are some interesting bits of material that add a certain layer that isn't in the current print. For example, the original cut had a lengthy opening text crawl highlighting a philosophical discussion about the nature of the universe. The cut scenes are not in the same, superb condition as the film transfer itself, but they're not bad. English subtitles are provided.

Perhaps the most enlightening aspect of the second disc are the new video interviews with those who have worked with Tarkovsky. The interviewees include: actress Natalya Bondarchuck, cinematographer Vadim Yusov, art director Mikhail Romadin (who designed all of the Solaris sets on an amazingly low-budget), and experimental composer Eduard Artemyev, whose work is found in the film. Each interview segment is at least 20 minutes long, more often longer. We get a clear picture of what it was like to work for Tarkovsky: frustrating at times, but ultimately rewarding. His dedication to deep collaboration with his crew is highlighted by these interviews, and everyone has funny stories of how they became involved in the project. Most interesting is Bondarchuck (daughter of Sergei Bondarchuck, director of War and Peace), as she discusses the difficulty of getting the role of Hari because of her young age. Rounding out the disc is a short excerpt from a 1970s documentary about author Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, and didn't particularly like Tarkovsky's film which, in his view, didn't live up to the same philosophical themes expressed in the novel. The excerpt is interesting, but not particularly long, making it a little incomplete in terms of discussion on Solaris. It would have been interesting to see a new interview with Lem (who is still alive today) included.

The keepcase booklet contains two essays on Solaris and Tarkovsky, one by Philip Lopate and one by the legendary Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. The overall presentation and design is quite lovely, creative, and minimalist; the perfect match for the film contained within. Overall, the package is totally satisfying, and I look forward to (hopefully) future Tarkovsky projects helmed by Criterion.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

In 2002, we saw a largely pointless (in my opinion) attempt to revisit Solaris by writer/director Steven Soderbergh; he changes the entire focus of the story into a confusing, wistful love story in which Kelvin and Hari enjoy a space-borne romance, dropping most of the other themes and ideas completely. Enormously unsuccessful on many levels, the remake ironically proves the sort of dichotomy between Western science fiction and the kind of Eastern European ideal to be intellectually challenging that Tarkovksy felt was ever-present. The original work is a bold statement that cements precisely what makes his films so engaging and important. They are unbridled works of personal passion that draw you in and insist that you leave a piece of yourself—and leaving a part of yourself somewhere on Solaris is a very disquieting thought.

 


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