Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Solaris (1972)' has the unique honor of being the type of film that's largely rejected when initially watched, but later lauded upon reflection — and with repeat viewings — as a masterpiece of the sci-fi genre. Although never outright disliking it, I admit to being one such moviegoer, confused as to whether the filmmakers made a point. At first, I thought the film was a perplexing and frustrating experience which ran far longer than needed and was full of pretty scenes with little meaning to them. Interestingly, I keep finding that Tarkovsky continues to have this same effect forty years later. (This was my wife's first viewing, and she still doesn't know what to make of it.) It was only later that I discovered the imagery lingers and haunts in the back of the mind until something germinates.
This is ultimately the true beauty and artistry behind this classic of Russian cinema, an experimental piece of beautiful, detailed images which stay with you, much like the paintings hanging on the walls inside the library of the space station. The story, which is based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, is of course a major component of the film — a small team of cosmonauts experience highly unusual hallucinations while orbiting the mysterious oceanic planet Solaris. But a great deal of its strength and effectiveness comes from what is seen on screen, how the images complement this poignant tale of grief and memory. Thanks to the amazing cinematography by Vadim Yusov, Tarkovsky is able to explore complex themes too difficult to put into words.
At its core, 'Solaris' is a philosophical treatise on the human condition, and it intelligently questions the certainty of reality. Everything is suggested rather than spoken, literally demanding a viewer's full attention in following the narrative. Tarkovsky's meditative camerawork plods along through a series of very intimate moments and unusual pacing that practically invades a character's personal space. The images speak for themselves and reveal much for those with the patience to reason through them. Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) walks contemplatively around the lake of his family's home and sits musingly on a patio chair during a rain shower. A family friend, Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), tries to persuade Kris about his mission to Solaris, and he does this using a filmed interview, hoping those images and the words spoken will be convincing enough.
Many of these early scenes serve as contrast to the film's later aspects, showing Kris surrounded by unspoiled nature in some distant future which doesn't exactly look anything like we'd imagine the future to be. Characters are rather blunt and forthright, speaking clearly and to the point. Once on the dilapidated space station, Kris is literally encircled by technology and discovers Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) committed suicide. The two remaining cosmonauts, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn), have difficulty explaining the strange phenomena on board. We can quickly estimate something suggestive like communication is in danger as society advances. But Tarkovsky, with his prolonged sequences and steady, unedited camera movements, seems to dig deeper when Kris finally experiences the strange occurrences first hand.
The next morning, Kris awakens to find his long-deceased wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) sitting in a chair. It looks just like her and speaks like her, but Kris knows it cannot be her. He tries to explain it but can't — the scientists try to theorize it, but they're unsuccessful. Their earlier failure to communicate now extends to rationalizing what is happening to them and talking with the "Guests" — essentially, an alien life form created by a conscious planet possibly trying to make contact. The age-old argument of science versus nature comes to a head, as these well-educated, knowledgeable men fail to provide answers. Questions arise over these fantastical events being manifested from the deep recesses of each man's unconscious will. Furthermore, why does Hari only appear as the spitting image of Kris's last memory of her? And the surprise ending only adds fuel to these and other burning questions — more than can be adequately covered in this review.
Often cited as the Soviet Union's response to '2001: A Space Odyssey,' Andrei Tarkovsky's film is much more than a terrific companion piece to Stanley Kubrick's own magnum opus. It's a unique experience with its own distinctive voice, intelligently told through a series of beautiful, eye-catching sequences that generate weighty, philosophical questions about humanity. 'Solaris (1972)' is incredibly challenging and perplexing, but captivating and engaging nonetheless — a complex mystery which unravels and only reveals its secrets with each consecutive viewing. A wonderful masterpiece from a masterful filmmaker.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Solaris (1972)' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #164) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 20-page booklet with pictures from the film. It also features two thoughtful essays entitled "Inner Space" by Phillip Lopate and "Tarkovsky and Solaris" by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options while music plays in the background.
According to the booklet provided in this Blu-ray release, the high-def transfer of Tarkovsky's 'Solaris (1972)' was made from a 35mm low-contrast print, presumably once-removed from the original camera negative. Retaining its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Criterion delivers a first-rate and marvelous 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, topping their already excellent 2002 DVD edition.
Aside from some age-related softness and a few very light vertical lines, the picture is terrifically detailed with distinct lines of the space station's interiors. Several scenes look outstanding, with precise definition of the gadgetry along the walls and clear textures on clothing, furniture, and facial complexions. The image displays a beautiful cinematic quality with nicely balanced contrast levels and crisp, clean whites which add to Kris's sterilized room. Blacks can appear slightly faded in a couple sequences but overall, they are accurate and often penetrating. Shadow delineation is strong in the small number of poorly-lit scenes. Colors are fuller than previous video releases, particularly the bolder but natural-looking primaries.
At the end of the day, the philosophical sci-fi classic offers a lovely high-def presentation; Vadim Yusov's photography has never looked as gorgeous and captivating as it does now on Blu-ray.
Criterion has also remastered the soundtrack from a 35mm optical track, and the results are generally good.
Dialogue reproduction is superb from beginning to end though the ADR is made more apparent by the higher resolution codec. Soft, intimate whispers between Kris and Hari are clearly intelligible, allowing for every emotional inflection in the actors to be heard. Where issues arise has more to do with the original design than anything else. The film is deliberately silent for a majority of its runtime, but that silence also lacks any sense of presence and doesn't really feel at all haunting. It simply just is. The few moments of discrete effects nicely break the peace without distracting, but the mid-range also seems to struggle a tad in the upper frequencies, noticeably distorting when pushed for too long. Low bass is non-existent, so the lossless mix lacks a bit of weight.
In the end, the DTS-HD Master Audio monaural track arrives with mostly good results and sounding just as the filmmakers intended.
Criterion carries over all the special features made special for the 2002 release. It's a healthy collection to be sure, but it would've been nice to see something new as well.
Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Solaris (1972)' is a pensive and brooding masterpiece of Russian cinema, a film that stays with viewers and demands repeat viewings in order to decipher its complex themes. Often cited as the Soviet Union's response to '2001,' Tarkovsky's film stands as a visually stunning masterwork and a unique experience, separate from Kubrick's own sci-fi opera. The Blu-ray comes with improved picture quality and very good audio. Supplements are ported over from the previous DVD release, but the overall package earns a recommendation and is worthy purchase for fans everywhere.