Unlike Soderbergh's interminable and seemingly much longer take on Stanislaw Lem's novel, Tarkovsky's Solaris is a sensual film, but one where the senses aren't exactly numbed as dulled into a kind of half-dreamlike state. Like the reeds in the opening shot, you have to go with the ebb and flow - it's almost more of a feeling than a film. And, it has to be said, at times that feeling can be like being lulled to the verge of sleep, while at others it's like being caught up in a fever. It's tempting to wonder what Werner Herzog makes of the film.
Lem famously disliked the film with a passion, feeling it gave into the heart rather the head with trite clichés: "Instead of focusing on deeper moral questions related to frontiers of human knowledge, he made a drama-type Crime and Punishment in space, by making up unnecessary characters of parents and relatives, then adding a hut on an island," was one of his less bitter comments after he fell out with Tarkovsky writing the script, although that implies a far more sentimental film than Tarkovsky delivered. Certainly the issue of whether the visitors are a gift, an experiment, a probe or a defensive psychological attack on the scientists is all but ignored in favour of their emotional effects on Kelvin and (to a much lesser effect) the scientists: these characters really aren't looking for answers, they're looking for a mirror, and it's their insular nature that condemns them to literally float in their own islands of memory (or a 'hut on an island' if you ascribe to Lem's view).
Rather than a formulaic movie redemption tale or Lem's examination of our inability to truly comprehend a superior alien intelligence because of the biological limitations imposed on us almost as design faults, Tarkovsky's film is about the limitations we impose on ourselves regardless of how far we technically advance and our inability to rise above them. Its nominal hero, Kelvin, is not a pleasant man and the film makes little attempt to bring the audience to his side. He treats the disgraced Cosmonaut Burton with insensitivity, professes a ruthless scientific pragmatism that allows for no human element and his immediate response to his first 'guest' on the Solaris research station is to deceive and dispose of her. Yet ultimately, as much because of his emotional limitations as in spite of them, he's the one human being who acts most humanely by recognising, albeit in a totally self-centred way, that the fault lies not in the stars but in themselves. Like Burton's young son with the horse in the lengthy prologue on Earth, he displays a childlike fear and rejection of something he doesn't understand before reluctantly accepting that it may have beauty, even if it's a beauty he cannot comfortably embrace.
But the most human character remains the least human: Hari, or rather his image of his dead wife Hari, unable to feel anything that he does not remember for her, stifled by his limitations and gradually assuming a painful awareness and despair of her own. Ironically, it's as she becomes more human that she becomes more unstable. To the other scientists it's because the visitors are unstable neutrino systems, but it's when the artificial Hari studying a painting - another artificial creation of man's consciousness - which triggers a real memory that the horror of her situation as a mere facsimile strikes home. To Kelvin she's at first more a penance than a second chance, a condemnation to repeat history while remaining oblivious - as he presumably did with the real Hari - to the person she is really becoming.
So, not exactly a barrel of laughs, but strangely compelling if you go with it. The 165 minutes don't exactly fly by, but they certainly can get under your skin if you're in a receptive mood and it's not hard to see why it's been so influential on Hollywood sci-fi (Sphere, Event Horizon and Star Trek The Motion Picture among the most prominent).
Sadly, I was shocked by just how bad the picture quality of the first hour of Criterion's Region 1 NTSC DVD was compared to the PAL Russico/Artificial Eye Region 2 PAL one - aside from some grading and subtitle changes it looks like you're watching a bad standards conversion of a video tape that's been burned onto a CD-R for all of the Earth-bound sequences, although the colour is better. If it weren't for the better extras package - including several deleted/extended scenes and detailed interviews - I doubt I'd have kept this copy. So, if you're wondering which to buy, the Criterion NTSC disc has the better extras but the Artificial Eye PAL disc has the better picture.
on 25 August 2005
I saw this as a kid. Double bill with a short called 'Cosmic Zoom'. Dumped in cinema three, but nowadays it would be unthinkable to have a Russian subtitled film out in the 'burbs. The reeds at the beginning and the music stuck in my mind and years later I saw it again as an adult, obviously. I immediately pronounced it the best film I had ever seen and my opinion has not changed to this day. An enduring masterpiece and a cross between visiting a church and going to an art gallery. Even the dated sci fi talk does not lessen it. Recently a new print was shown at the National Film Theatre. Someone opened a sweety wrapper through the final scene when he goes 'home'. Can you believe that? You may prefer to watch this in the comfort of your own home for that reason alone, although I do think the Tark should be viewed on the big screen.
We are not meant to discuss other reviews posted here, but I would like to point out that this is emphatically not the Criterion release and you will not get the deleted mirror room footage.
It is a scandal that Tarkovsky is habitually left off so many twenty greatest director lists on various sites, while Woody Allen (God help us) is usually there.
on 19 August 2002
The story follows the book "Solaris" by Stanislav Lem. Solaris is a planet covered by the ocean. One of the hypothesis is that this ocean is a thinking matter that tries to correspond with humans. Misterious events happen at Solaris space station: personnel disappears, scientific experiments are in dolldrums, eventually contact with station is lost. A researcher played by the famous Soviet era Lithuanian actor - Banionis - is sent to investigate the situation and take a decision on whether to continue the work on a station or close it down...
However, let the viewer be forewarned that anybody expecting a thriller will be utterly disappointed. The film is a contemplation and analysis of what we consider important in our lives. The questions of duty, love, memory, nostalgia and soul occupy most of the film's content. In a way, science fiction only serves a purpose of the best conduit to explore the most important issues of human existence.
It is a definite tribute to Tarkovsky's mastery that film manages to convey its ideas with a bare minimum of science fiction stunts (if any) and very minimal other technical means of expression. Aspiring film makers can learn from Tarkovsky on how to create one of the most powerful images ever seen in the world cinema without big budgets or artificial wizardry.
Tarkovsky is a very consistent director in his film making. The attention to small details of nature, slow camera exploration of every shot will be familiar to the viewers who saw his other films. Indeed, after Mirror and Andrei Rublev, Solaris is a natural progression of Tarkovsky's initiate. The pleasure of recognising the common themes of all his films is an important viewing experience.
Solaris is more understating than "Mirror" or "Andrei Rublev" in its expression of Tarkovsky's own views. While it makes the film a touch more dificult (relative to the other two films)to understand, it definitely gives the viewer more room for interpretation and own exploration of spiritual topic.
on 11 February 2002
SOLARIS remains Tarkovsky's most spiritually intense film - an unparalleled achievement that quietly gathers force with each passing year. Entirely devoid of the glibness and hip irony that cripples much of today's cinema, SOLARIS is an unapologetically earnest and sincere attempt to explore the state of the human soul and the redemptive powers of simple, human love.
The DVD transfer is very good, but without knowing the condition of the print used or the technical details of the transfer, one can't really make a judgement. Suffice to say, it's superior to the VHS editions I have seen and is presented in its original aspect ratio. The extra features are fascinating and include present day interviews with actress Natalya Bondarchuk, Tarkovsky's sister and a late sixties featurette on lead actor Donatis Banionis (a revered stage actor). There's also an original trailer/promo spot for Mirror, with a glimpse of Tarkovsky himself, and some good production stills on Disc 2. The major complaint here though, derives from the ridiculous decision to put the film itself onto 2 discs. Why not place the film in its entirety onto disc one and the extra features onto disc two as most other companies do?
In summary, if you don't mind flipping discs halfway through, and you're as continually amazed and moved by the cinematic power of Andrei Tarkovsky, then buy this DVD now!!
Daniel S Graham
on 6 June 2005
Solaris isn't easy going but it's worth the effort. Tarkovsky's method is very slow, building up an atmosphere, taking beautiful shots - and there's this horse which keeps on galloping around - and I'm thinking what's that about? In space you have a station where the other crew have gone mad and 'alien' life force which is making them go mad is doing so by making their memory come 'alive'. A scientist is sent to investigage and his past comes 'alive'. Some how he is able to resolve the conflict by showing 'love' and 'understanding' instead of 'fear' and 'violence'. Well that's what I made of it - you may read something different into it. After I had watched the film - I began to appreciated it - whereas while watching it, I was working hard to figure it out. If you like thought provoking films and intelligent scripts I think your enjoy this film. If on the other hand you like 1 1/2 hour, fast moving hollywood films then avoid this.
on 25 July 2003
Probably the worst thing about Solaris is the remake that has brought hundreds of MTV generated minds to the doorstep of Russian film making only to balk at what they get in the end. This isn't about lots of explosions and face paced editing. It is about enjoying a novel that has been brought to life. Solaris is derived from a book of the same name by polish writer Stanislaw Lem and is directed by the acclaimed russian film maker Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972.
The opening sequence revolves around a family of astronaughts who talk about their lives and space travel. It turns out that something very strange is happening on a planet called Solaris which is recalled through a soviet type interrogiation sequence like something out of the x-files. Like in much of David Lynch's work people say and talk about wierd things. Nothing seems to make sense.
Zipping through a montage of nature/urban photography we find our hero on a space station orbiting solaris where the crew have all gone but mostly crazy. Slowly our hero begins to discover what is going on.
Tarkovsky's photograph is a must see. This is a 1972 Russia production and even thought the print has jumps and bad bits - UK or American cinematography pales in comparison, even today. This film is totally out there and like most of Trakovski's films and is full of philosophy and psychological drama. If you prefer a slow peaceful and thoughtful movie then this is the one for you. I also highly recommend Stalker which is another sci-fi classic from this same director.
on 6 October 2000
You can only watch Solaris once, on your own, when you've got the time to appreciate it. Only then can you be drawn into its hypnotic, glacially-paced other-worldliness.
Other reviewers have already described the plot. A few have commented on this film's length. It needs every minute of its three hours plus duration to cast its spell.
Looking for a quick fix of entertainment? Forget it. Looking for cinema that draws you inexorably out of your living room and into its strange and absorbing world - and then stays in your mind forever? This is it.
on 3 August 2005
This is a superb DVD of Tarkovsky's great 1972 science fiction epic Solaris. It includes deleted scenes, although these are mainly just deleted sections from longer scenes or shots in the film. The main exception to this is the fascinating 'Mirror Room' scene, only a fraction of which surived into the finished film. There are also several interviews, including one with Natalya Bondarchuk, which is wonderful. The film also contains an interesting commentary track by Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson & Graham Petrie. The icing on the cake, however, is the film itself: the transfer is stunning and the soundtrack is the original Russian mono mix. Buy this instead of the Artificial Eye version, which is spread over two discs and has a 5.1 remix.
The film, needless to say, is one Tarkovsky's best, IMHO, and the nearest he ever came to making a love story. Stand out moments: the beginning, showing Kelvin contemplating, the drive into the city, the birthday party in the library and, perhaps best of all, the profoundly moving home movie, weightlessness and Breughel sequences. If 2001 could be said to be a cold movie, Solaris is its exact opposite: a deeply human, wise film about love, loss and conscience.
on 29 September 2014
With Solaris (1972) Andrei Tarkovsky reached a defining point in his career. The way the film looks, the basically humanist themes of the script, the languid pacing and the highly literate complex cross-referencing to other iconic works of art all became permanent features of his work from here onwards. The previous two works had certainly not lacked intellectual weight and there are many who see (with some justification) Ivan's Childhood (1962) and (especially) Andrei Roublev (1966) as showing Tarkovsky at his best. However, their narrative structures are rigidly cinema-bound and totally lacking in the free-flowing meditative and associative tendencies of Tarkovsky's mature style announced here. Ivan's Childhood is a relatively conventional novel adaptation albeit shot-through with an extraordinarily hallucinatory quality, while Andrei Roublev is an unconventional slice of medieval Russian history told through several cinematic tableaux. Both of these films are unique in Tarkovsky's output and were hugely successful both artistically and commercially. Andrei Roublev however had caused consternation for the Soviet authorities who were not happy with the overt religious content. It was only after considerable foreign pressure that the film came to be released in the USSR at all. The 5 years following the completion of Roublev saw Tarkovsky at loggerheads with the powers that be not only over that film's release, but also over the choice of material for his next project. This kind of bureaucratic haggling would eventually drive the director out of Russia for good.
Tarkovsky wanted to make a personal film about his mother, but had to make do with the `safe' option of Stanisław Lem's science fiction novel Solaris. The authorities didn't want to be `tricked' again and thought they could control the director by giving him a basic text from which he couldn't deviate. Perhaps for that reason the resulting film later came to be the work of his the director liked the least. There is barely a mention of Solaris in his book Sculpting in Time except in disparaging references to his unhappy experiences making it. He couldn't get along with either Natalya Bondarchuk (the daughter of his nemesis Sergei Bondarchuk whose epic War and Peace had eclipsed Andrei Roublev on first release) or Donatas Banionis (a first time screen actor who resisted Tarkovsky's demands to enter his role empathetically). He also had to endure long wrangles with Lem who was outraged by the script changes. Lem in fact came very close to disowning the final result. We should note however that when the film was first released not only were the authorities pleased with it to the point were it was accorded full exposure to the Russian public and was very successful commercially, but Tarkovsky also was initially proud of the results, even going so far as to say it was in some ways better than Andrei Roublev. Nowadays the film divides people. Many (Tony Rayns among them) dislike the film's `brain-freezing kindergarten psychology'. Others though have warmed to it and it has accrued a cult following. As a teenager this was the Tarkovsky film that impressed me the most and 30 years on I still think it's some kind of masterpiece.
Tarkovsky's new languid style denoted in long meditative camera shots which really force the spectator to think through their emotional response to what they are watching makes for an extremely slow (some would say sleep-inducing!) 165 minute film, but the simple story can be summarized in a few sentences. The Solaris of the title is the name of a new planet which has been discovered parked just inside our solar system. The film begins at the point where `Solaristics' (the study of the planet) has ground to a halt. After several long years scientists are no nearer discovering the true nature of the planet than they were when they first discovered it. A now-dilapidated space station which used to be manned by a large crew sits in orbit above the continually shifting and changing ocean comprising Solaris with just three surviving members - Doctors Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsyn), Snaut (Yüri Yärvet) and Gibarian (Sos Sarkissian). Ground Control has to decide whether to wind up research and recall the crew, or to continue the project. They decide to send psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) up to research a final recommendation. Upon arrival Kelvin is unsettled by strange events. Not only has Gibarian committed suicide and the remaining two scientists seem to have gone mad, but there seem to be other `people' on the station. Kelvin wakes up to find his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) in bed with him. This is the same wife who had killed herself 10 years previously. Kelvin discovers that Solaris seems to have the power to enter the psyche of each human on the station to reproduce in the flesh exactly the people that most prey on their consciences. Gibarian's `visitor' (a teenage girl) still wanders around ringing an eerie bell while both Sartorius and Snaut have their own visitors whom we only catch glimpses of. Significantly perhaps, both envy Kelvin being able to get along with his visitor intimating that their visitors are the results of unethical sinister past medical experimentation. Kelvin's immediate response is to blast Hari away in a rocket, but she re-materializes soon after. The film's long central section is devoted to the relationship between the two as Hari is `resurrected' again and again. In essence Kelvin re-attaches himself emotionally to Hari while Hari edges towards neurotic breakdown as she realizes gradually that she is not human. Curiously, their relationship seems to revert back to how it was ten years before on Earth. Sartorius works at how to get rid of these unwelcome visitors and finally invents something called an `annihilator' which destroys the neutrinos the visitors are made of. While Kelvin sleeps Hari agrees to be `annihilated'. Kelvin has a nervous breakdown. After he recovers Snaut suggests he return to Earth. What happens to the space station, to Solaris or to Solaristics is never explained.
This brief synopsis is pretty close to Lem's original conception of the story which is primarily philosophical and technological. He is interested in what humans do when the conditions that surround them are inhuman and great space is allotted to the mechanics of science fiction which stress the impossibility of communicating with extra-terrestrial life. Lem's problem with Tarkovsky was that the director wasn't interested in the science fiction element at all. Petrie and Johnson in their excellent book Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue sum it up best: `Tarkovsky [was] attracted by the novel's moral implications and psychological insights rather than its fantastic events, and by a story of a man who regrets the past and wants to relive it in order to change it. He saw the idea of man's inescapable moral transformation as the cornerstone of the novel'. Tarkovsky's film is therefore much more the story of a man working through his own psychological trauma brought about by his wife's suicide which in turn was brought about by the problematic relationships he had with his parents. Lem's novel takes place entirely in space whereas almost an hour of the film plays out on Earth. Kelvin's parents (non-existent in the novel) appear in key scenes which permeate the atmosphere of the entire film. In fact by turning away from science fiction Tarkovsky gives expression to key themes which will dominate the rest of his work - an exploration of family relationships, guilt and betrayal, and a celebration of the natural beauty of Earth and humanity's inescapable links with it.
This last theme is the first to really leap out at us as the film opens onto a shot of reeds floating in a fast-moving stream to the sound of Bach (the Choral Prelude in F minor BWV639 for organ) on the soundtrack. Leaves float past, the camera pans to the right across rich foliage until the legs of a human being are brought into focus. The camera pans up and we have Kelvin posed staring past the camera - man and nature together in harmony. The four natural elements already an integral part of Tarkovsky's universe permeate the opening 15 minutes of the film which depict Kelvin's family dacha built in a forest next to a pond. One of the horses familiar from Andrei Roublev trots past, a balloon (a modern version of the one from that film's prologue) bobs about in the air above the house. It starts to rain to which Kelvin simply lets himself get wet. It's his last day before he leaves for Solaris and he wants to `be at one' with nature. Once on the space station Tarkovsky emphasizes how much the scientists miss the Earth. Kelvin takes a little tin box inside which a small plant is growing. Gibarian's room is full of Earth-bound artifacts - pictures of nature, a horse, cigarette ash. Snaut shows Kelvin how to hang paper over the ventilation shaft to make a noise which imitates the sound of trees. He says Sartorius also has the same in his room. Most obviously of all is the library, furnished in wood with the five Breughel paintings of the artist's 1595 `Months' series hanging on the wall. Tarkovsky's camera lovingly explores the detail of `The Hunters in the Snow' to the familiar Bach. The music also accompanies the home movie Kelvin and Hari watch of his childhood showing his family united in the snow before a fire in a scene obviously reminiscent again of Breughel. Clearly, the film isn't a Lem-style scientific discovery of a new world. Rather, it is a statement of the idea that man's future lies much more in an Earth-bound appreciation of Mother Nature. As Snaut says in the library, "Man doesn't need new worlds. He needs mirrors". Tarkovsky rejects advances in science which take man away from Earth and embraces the feelings of love and nostalgia that bind man back to his home. Man's future belongs on Earth, not off it.
The above of course makes nonsense of any claim that Solaris is in some sense the USSR's riposte to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or that the two films are similar in any way. They are both long, slow and concerned with ideas - there all similarity ends. Actually, in their preparations Tarkovsky, cinematographer Vadim Yusov and art director Mikhail Romadin watched 2001 together and were unanimous in their dislike for that film's sterility. They decided that Solaris would be the exact opposite. Kelvin's journey to the station is swift and perfunctory with no special effects aside from a slight optical iris illusion - not for them Kubrick's elaborate models and majestic ballet movements choreographed to Johann Strauss! The space station's interior is grimy, detritus-strewn and lived-in, not pure white, designer-driven and spotlessly clean. Above all else, the film rejects space technology as a grand leap into a glorious future in favor of a simple celebration of Earthly delights - a reactionary leap backwards if you like. The Soviet authorities may have marketed Solaris as an answer to 2001 as shown by their advertising poster featuring the interior of the space ship as if through the lens of 2001's HAL, but anyone coming to this film expecting more of the same were surely destined to be disappointed.
The film's celebration of nature and man's place within it is intimately bound up with Tarkovsky's main subject - the depiction of Kelvin's psychological crisis caused by family problems. `Man of nature' he may be at the film's outset, but there's no denying that Kelvin is an unsympathetic character at this point. He has an obviously strained relationship with his doting father (Nikolai Grinko) with whom he can barely have a conversation. On this last day on Earth they are visited by Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), an old friend of his father's and the astronaut whose problems in the Solaris atmosphere first alerted others to the mysterious effects the planet seems to have on humans. He passionately wants to keep Solaristics alive and tries to persuade Kelvin that they shouldn't inhumanely destroy what simply can't be understood. He says knowledge is only valid when it is based on morality. Kelvin's response is cold. If nothing can be done then he is willing to destroy the planet by firing rays at it. Science has to follow its own course no matter where it leads (even to Hiroshima). Here we have Tarkovsky's concern for the dichotomy between the scientific morality-free way to approach understanding (Kelvin) and the aesthetic morally-determined way (Berton) which will come into even greater focus in Stalker (1979). For now though, it simply underlines Kelvin's inhuman scientific view of things - something that explains a lot about the impasse between himself and his father who shows anger at his son for riling an old friend. We will also find out that his cold scientific objectivity is what partly drove Hari to suicide. When Kelvin arrives on the Space station the character he most resembles is Sartorius who is depicted as being an ice cold madman concerned only with climbing the ladder of scientific reasoning. He has no time for `human' emotion. Kelvin takes an instant dislike to him and from here a gradual thaw takes place in his character. Hari's appearance causes an immediate negative reaction, but the constant resurrections warm his heart. A spiritual rebirth takes place as he tries to atone for past mistakes and attempts to unravel the guilt that has been clinging to him. Key to this guilt is the relationship with his mother. As in Mirror (1974), the main character can't distinguish between the women in his life - his wife and his mother merge as one in his mind. Tarkovsky happily admitted this is how it was for him in real life, and was probably the reason why he had trouble keeping intimate relationships with women. In this film it is intimated that it is Hari's jealousy aimed at the bond between Kelvin and his mother that drove her to suicide combined with the fact that the mother didn't care for her. During Kelvin's nervous breakdown there is a key dream sequence where we see him encounter his mother - a scene couched in erotic tones absent from other scenes in the film between him and Hari.
The way that the scenes at the country dacha frame the film also brings out this key theme of Kelvin working through his psychosis in the course of the film. Though the film celebrates nature as a fundamental positive there is something false about the way it's presented. The opening scenes seem beautiful enough, but odd things happen. The horse runs around restlessly as if something is wrong, mist rises over the forest uncannily as if we are witnessing some ghost scene. After the rain stops the sound of the water dripping is echoed acoustically just like the well dream sequence in Ivan's Childhood in a very unnatural way as if everything is somehow `otherworldly'. This otherworldly nature is continued with the (very different) otherworldly urban chaos of the highways (actually shot in Japan) running around Berton as he drives into the city to suggest even more an imaginary world of the mind. Then there's the sequence on the eve of Kelvin's departure where he burns many of his effects. His aunt looks out over the countryside, a dog sitting beside her. This is a quintessential Tarkovsky image conveying homesickness or nostalgia for a loved one long gone which will appear repeatedly in the films that follow. This time the director uses a blue filter over his camera as if to say `this is nature' but actually `NOT nature'. As I have described above nature will never disappear from the film as the scientists cherish their mementoes of Earth on the space station. During the central part of the film the feeling of falseness, of being trapped as it were in dream logic, is continued. For example, when Hari appears to Kelvin she refers to having met Snaut. This couldn't possibly have happened. Later Snaut greets Hari as if he knows her which again startles Kelvin. In fact as Kelvin is progressively drawn to Hari and he approaches his nervous breakdown so the film becomes gradually less coherent and ever-more dream-like in the way Tarkovsky manipulates time and space. When Kelvin returns to Earth at the very end we understand the otherworldliness of everything that has gone before. Again Kelvin is looking at his reeds, but the scene has changed. The pond has iced over and the leaves have come down from the trees. Kelvin approaches the house and rests his head on his upraised arm leaning on a window pane as he looks through at his father assembling books on a table. We hear the familiar Bach on the soundtrack but mixed with strange electronic acoustic sounds. Everything is unnatural and distorted. Rain pours down on his father inside his house. He notices Kelvin and comes to the door. Kelvin drops to his knees and embraces his father's waist. The picture quotes exactly Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son. The camera backs away, lifting up higher and higher. Mists mask two dissolves until we see the dacha on an island surrounded by the Solaris ocean. In other words, we have never left Earth and everything we have seen has been a figment of Kelvin's tortured imagination. The film has been a huge journey through the ocean of Kelvin's mind as he has valiantly been working through the demons that have been preying on his conscience. Of course things are not quite as literal as that - the ending is open to other interpretations, but the one I have given seems the most likely given the long central part of the film depicts with great tenderness the re-awakening of Kelvin's spiritual humanity through the re-encounter with his lost wife in which he quests for knowledge towards a conclusion which by nature must remain illusory.
Tarkovsky doesn't write much about Solaris in Sculpting in Time, but he does say this: `Solaris [is] about people lost in the Cosmos and obliged, whether they [like] it or not to take one step up the ladder of knowledge. Man's unending quest for knowledge, given him gratuitously, is a source of great tension, for it brings with it constant anxiety, hardship, grief and disappointment, as the final truth can never be known. Moreover, man has been given a conscience which means he is tormented when his actions infringe the moral law, and in that sense even conscience involves an element of tragedy. The characters of Solaris are dogged by disappointments, and the way out offered them [is] illusory enough. It [lies] in dreams, in the opportunity to recognize their own roots - those roots which forever link man to the Earth which [bears] him.' Kelvin's journey through the Cosmos from cold scientist through reawakening consciousness back to a reunion with nature and love for his wife and family is what lies at the very center of Tarkovsky's extraordinary film. As Johnson and Petrie say, `[the film] is a celebration of human values and of the power of love in an indifferent or hostile universe'.
So far I have pointed out some themes, ticks and tropes that are intensely `Tarkovskian', but there are many other aspects that we could focus on. Most important is the pervasive Christian worldview that never left this director. The Soviet authorities had chosen Lem's book to minimize any chance of any religious content appearing, but Tarkovsky snuck past them ingeniously. The Bach choral prelude that accompanies all the celebratory scenes of nature has the subtitle: "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ". Furthermore, despite his scientific objectivism Kelvin is a Christian as evidenced by the copy of Andrei Rublev's `Trinity' which he has in his room (this short scene is accompanied by music from the film of the same name). Moreover, Kelvin undergoes a spiritual rejuvenation courtesy of a series of `resurrections'. In Sculpting in Time stills of Hari's resurrections are reprinted opposite the following quote from the Bible: `Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain...' (I Corinthians 15, 15-19). At the first resurrection Kelvin refuses to believe (shows lack of faith) by blasting Hari away, but by the time of the last resurrection he is convinced completely that she has returned and promises to stay with her on the station forever. Spiritually he has himself been `resurrected'. The final image of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son also refers of course to the Bible - to Luke 15: 29-30 and the picture of a dissolute son returning after many years in the sinful wilderness to the family fold. Tarkovsky's celebration of `the power of love' is completely Christian and it's puzzling that the Soviet authorities either missed it or turned a blind eye.
Other Tarkovskian characteristics I want to mention briefly are largely visual and aural. The film is his first color feature, but we should note the extremely poetic and stylized way it is used. Throughout the film we shift from color to b/w to sepia and to use of color filters. There is no intellectual rationalization for these shifts. Simply we have to respond intuitively and go with the emotions that Tarkovsky is trying to express and trying to evoke from us. It is so extraordinarily well done that somehow the visual scheme of the film makes sense and we don't come away feeling irritated. All Tarkovsky films after this will follow this template. Similarly, the theme of flight or levitation is continued with the balloons at the dacha both the one outside and the ones on the walls inside. The space station of course flies over Solaris and in one stunning scene in the library Kelvin and Hari levitate in a moment of weightlessness while a copy of Cervantes' Don Quixote flies past and Bach plays on the soundtrack. Mirror and The Sacrifice (1986) will feature similar scenes of levitation. Then there is the scene of Kelvin's breakdown and dream where the camera does several 360˚ rotations in which we see the same characters (Hari and his mother) many times over. This was first used in Ivan's Childhood on the truck with the apples and will be used again in future films. Then there's the music - a mixture of Bach and electronic scoring by Eduard Artemyev. Bach will reappear in Mirror and The Sacrifice while Artemyev will stay with Tarkovsky through until Stalker. Studied closely and we see Solaris could only be the work of Tarkovsky so personal are the ticks and tropes deployed, but so movingly do they conjur up empathetic emotions within us.
This is a review of the first region 2 Artificial Eye `Russico' release of the film. The images (aspect ratio 16:9) are wonderfully sharp and the sound (Mono) clear enough. Transfer quality is very important with Tarkovsky films because of the immense sophistication of both the visual and sound designs and I think AE do him proud here. It's shown in 2 parts as per the original Russian release and the 2 DVDs follow the pattern. There are some interesting extras, particularly the interview with Artemyev about the music. The Criterion region 1 version transfer apparently isn't so good (see Trevor Willsmer's review) even if it does come with better extras. The commentary by Petrie and Johnson must be very interesting to hear. Whichever version you choose, this is a key Tarkovsky film which should be in every collection. I hold up Mirror, Andrei Rublev and Stalker as being his very greatest works, but why split hairs? This really is just as good.
If Andrei Tarkovsky had been an English-speaking director, then "Solaris" would be known and loved as deeply as "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Sadly, Tarkovsky's best-known movie is not nearly well-known enough. This is not a "Star Trek" style narrative where there is a problem to be solved -- It's a quiet, contemplative sci-fi movie that uses an alien planet as the backdrop for one man's wounded soul to be healed. You may need to watch it a few times to fully absorb its meaning, but its beauty and sorrow are enough to pull you in.
Solaris is a distant water planet, whose ocean seems to be an intelligent life form. There is a human space station orbiting it for scientific study, but the mission really hasn't gone very far, mainly because almost all the crew has had meltdowns or hallucinations. Troubled psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is being sent to Solaris to determine whether the mission should continue.
But when he arrives, he finds that the space station is falling apart, and his friend Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has committed suicide. The two remaining scientists, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), are strangely unwilling to talk to Kris -- and they seem to be hiding living creatures on the space station. When Kris' wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) -- who committed suicide years ago -- appears, he begins to realize what Solaris truly is.
Technically speaking, "Solaris" is a science fiction movie. After all, everything that happens centers on an intelligent water-planet, an alien intelligence that can only communicate through creating replicas so perfect that they don't know they aren't human. It's a hauntingly strange, wondrous kind of sci-fi, imagining worlds and creatures that are so ALIEN that we can barely comprehend them.
But in this movie, the sci-fi elements are there to serve the human ones. This is a heartrending, exquisite story of loss and grief, explored through Kris' struggle to deal with a simulacrum of his beloved dead wife and his guilt over her. Tarkovsky's direction is absolutely brilliant, slow and dreamlike, full of mist and pale light, metal walls and lush landscapes -- and it makes the shocking moments all the more shocking because they are so soft and slow.
Reportedly Banionis didn't really "get" his role until he saw the finished movie, but he does give a quietly powerful performance as a man with a wife he drove to suicide and a father he's still got issues with. And Bondarchuk is powerfully tragic as a Solaris-generated simulacrum who cannot understand what she is, and whose knowledge may destroy her.
And in a weird way, Solaris itself is a character -- while it never speaks and is a formless creature beyond our knowledge, it seems curious. And when it interacts with Kris, it gives him the chance to work through his issues and be at peace, and in turn the planet can become something new and glorious.
"Solaris" is a luminous, haunting movie that uses science fiction to tell a very human story -- and Tarkovsky's exquisite direction makes this one of the best movies of the genre. An absolute must-see.