Examine any authoritative list of the top science fiction movies ever made and Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 version of Solaris will invariably appear, rubbing shoulders with all those other classics by the likes of Kubrick, Lucas et al. Modern audiences more accustomed with the eye-popping visual FX of Gravity or Interstellar who are considering Solaris for the first time should be prepared though, as this is definitely not that sort of film. It may be set in outer space, but Solaris is a brooding psychological drama more focussed on the innermost thoughts of its central protagonist than large scale spectacle.
In a long opening sequence we are introduced to the main character, psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), as he wanders around the countryside near to his father’s dacha, staring at a lake and contemplating life. This moment of solitude is interrupted by the arrival of some acquaintances seeking Kelvin’s expertise. It emerges that a space station orbiting the oceanic planet Solaris has been transmitting garbled messages. There have been reports of mysterious deaths and inexplicable sightings, with the once 85 strong crew seemingly reduced to just three. Now the entire research project that has been studying and attempting to communicate with Solaris for a number of years is in jeopardy, so Kelvin is soon heading off to investigate.
From the inviting green landscape of Earth glimpsed in those early scenes we are transported to the clinical white and grey interior of a dilapidated space station. Upon arrival Kelvin is not greeted with a warm welcome by two of the cosmonauts, as Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) appears in an agitated state, while the aloof Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) is even less hospitable. A sense of unrest is further heightened by fleeting glimpses of other unidentified guests on board. Kelvin inspects the disorganised quarters of his friend Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), the third member of the team, who it transpires has recently committed suicide after leaving an ominous video message warning of what lies in store for those left behind.
After a laboriously slow start the film becomes more compelling when Kelvin awakens later after a brief rest and is shocked to find his wife Hari confronting him, despite the fact that the door to his quarters is barricaded from the inside. Kelvin cannot comprehend what is happening as he knows that this can’t possibly be the real Hari, as she died 10 years previously. In a panic he lures the imitation of his wife into a space capsule and launches her into space. At this point Snaut reveals that the Ocean of Solaris has been interacting with the crew since they bombarded it with radiation during their experiments. In response it has been reading minds and creating replicas of humans from their past based on powerful memories. These uninvited guests have been appearing all over the space station for months and causing much distress. In Kelvin’s case we learn that his wife committed suicide because she did not feel loved, so the Solaris Hari has come back to haunt him because of his intense feelings of guilt.
We learn that the guests cannot be easily eliminated, have super strength and regenerating powers. Therefore a new materialization of Hari is soon back on the spacestation to face Kelvin, though it’s evident she means him no physical harm. Intriguingly the knowledge of this replica Hari is limited to Kelvin’s memories of her. She initially doesn’t recognise herself in a mirror, understand exactly where she has come from or indeed why the human Hari decided to end her life back on Earth. Furthermore as Solaris bases the recreations on human memories that don't necessarily include every minute detail, it sometimes has to fill in the gaps and makes assumptions that are not always accurate. For example, Hari’s dress correctly has fastenings at the back, but they don’t actually undo when she tries to remove her clothing. These inaccuracies will take on even greater significance later in the story. As the film progresses the Solaris Hari evolves and claims to be more human, complete with feelings of love towards Kelvin. He in turns learns to love Hari, albeit the recreation of her. Banionis and Bondarchuk both brilliantly convey the confusion and anguish experienced by their characters in these emotional scenes. A predicament emerges as the replica desperately wants to be Hari, though as Sartorious scoffs she will never be truly human or able to exist on Earth. Snaut and Sartorius have devised a plan to stop Solaris and rid them of the guests, but this means that Kelvin will never see Hari again too.
Solaris was adapted from a 1961 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem and much had been written over the years about Tarkovsky's 1972 film version. Generally regarded as a masterpiece by critics, though author Lem was less than enamoured with the results complaining about changes made to the narrative. There is much to admire, from Vadim Yusov's beautiful widescreen photography to Eduard Artemyev's suitably somber music. It's a challenging film for sure, full of philosophical dialogue, long takes and slow panning shots. Tarkovsky is clearly in no rush to tell the story, which is best demonstrated in a lengthy driving sequence early in the film. Presented from the driver's point of view, we take a dialogue free car journey through a city that seems to last an eternity, though it's actually just a few minutes of screen time. You couldn't imagine such scenes in mainstream cinema now, where fast cutting has become the norm. Be patient though and you will be rewarded. Solaris is a haunting film that, unlike many contemporary sci-fi releases, will stay with you long after the end credits roll and demand repeated viewings to fully appreciate all it has to offer. Don't miss an extraordinary final sequence too, which will not be revealed in this review!
Early editions of Solaris were spread across 2 discs, though with improved storage capacity available nowadays the full 167 minute film and a multitude of extras are all contained on a single BD. Solaris was released barely a year ago in the UK on the Artificial Eye label, with a different set of extras to this release. The Criterion Collection UK release of Solaris is essentially the exact same edition that Criterion released in the States in 2011. Comparing the two UK releases, Criterion offers a more generous and superior set of extras.
Filmed in Sovscope 70 and presented in 2.35:1, the image quality is generally good overall, though not pristine. Restoration work has evidently been carried out to the source used for this release, but there are still slight signs of damage. This consists of light vertical lines that appear sporadically in later scenes. It doesn't ruin the film and the image is otherwise bright and detailed with natural looking skin tones.
There is only one audio track for the main feature, Russian LPCM 1.0, with English subtitles available. There are no discernible issues, with the dialogue clear throughout.
Audio commentary with scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, co-authors of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. Johnson and Petrie provide a detailed analysis of the film, discussing the various themes and motifs in Tarkovsky's work.
Nine deleted and alternate scenes (25 mins approx.). Tarkovsky cut the film down before it was presented at Cannes in 1972 and all those missing moments are included for this release. The film ended up being nominated for the Palme d'Or and won the Grand Jury Prize.
Interviews with actress Natalya Bondarchuk (32 mins), cinematographer Vadim Yusov (34 mins), art director Mikhail Romadin (17 mins), and composer Eduard Artemyev (22 mins).
An excerpt from a documentary about Stanislaw Lem, the author of the film’s source novel (5 mins).
Collector's booklet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Lopate and an appreciation by director Akira Kurosawa (not available for this review)
An intelligent and deliberately paced sci-fi drama that demands your patience, but has much to admire. Criterion have released the best edition of Solaris to date, with generous and informative extras.