NB: This is a review of the version of Solaris released by the Russian Cinema Council. Although I have it on very good authority that the British Artificial Eye release contains exactly the same discs, I must stress that I haven’t seen them myself. If anyone spots any differences, I’d be very grateful if you’d e-mail me or add a comment below.
After going back to the past with the war film Ivan's Childhood (1962) and the medieval epic Andrei Rublev (1966), Andrei Tarkovsky's third feature Solaris (1972) looked forward into the future, producing what would be his last film to fit within a clearly recognisable generic format (his last four features Mirror, Stalker, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice would be altogether more inward-looking and personal).
Solaris is often linked with 2001: A Space Odyssey, though this is more out of convenience than anything else, as comparisons are somewhat superficial when examined closely. True, they're both long, slow, unusually serious and philosophical sci-fi films made by major auteur directors who had never tackled the genre before, both based on work by important sci-fi writers (Arthur C Clarke, Stanislaw Lem), and both achieve impressive effects on what were surprisingly large budgets given their challenging form and subject, but 2001 has a self-consciously cosmic ant’s-nest view of humanity, while Solaris focuses very much on individual memories and emotions.
This is underlined in the opening scenes, which serve both to set up the basic situation and, rather more importantly in retrospect, to establish a bedrock of memories that psychologist Chris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) can draw on once he’s ensconsed on the space station that is the setting for the rest of the film. Tarkovsky shoots his home life with his customary attention to tactile detail, with seemingly banal elements later given massive emotional and existential force once the action has shifted to the sterile space station - the rustle of torn strips of paper in a ventilation shaft is a poor substitute for wind on leaves.
Stanislaw Lem and fans of his novel were highly critical of these scenes (which don’t appear in the book) and on a first viewing they seem slow and barely relevant – but when set against the film as a whole it becomes clear that they’re a crucial part of Tarkovsky’s attempts to find a visual and aural approach to the novel’s dense philosophy and the key themes of memory and renewal. By showing us Kelvin’s past life, as opposed to merely describing it or flashing back to it, we can appreciate its solidity, its earthiness – and it makes the magnificent final sequence, which I won’t spoil here, that much more uncanny.
The bulk of the film takes place in orbit around the mysterious planet Solaris. The astronaut Burton, recently returned from Solaris, is convinced that it harbours life of some kind, but apart from a massive, swirling ocean there seems little concrete evidence. Kelvin, whose job is to report on the state of mind of its surviving inhabitants Snaut (Yuri Yarvet) and Sartorius (Tarkovsky favourite Anatoly Solonitsin), is initially convinced that they’ve gone quite mad, but their stories begin to make sense when Kelvin encounters his wife Hari (a haunting performance by Natalya Bondarchuk in every sense), who committed suicide ten years earlier.
Although the rational and logical part of Kelvin knows that she’s essentially a ghost (or, as Snaut puts it, a neutrino-based projection created by the sea of Solaris from Kelvin’s memories), he can’t get her out of her mind, and despite harrowing reconstructions of distressing moments in their lives – most notably her death – she keeps returning to him, her constant reappearances becoming increasingly disturbing as it becomes clear that she knows that she’s not the real Hari but she can’t do anything about it.
The fundamental problem shared by the inhabitants of the space station is that of an inability to communicate, not just with the Solaris sea and each other but with themselves, their lives, their culture and their feelings. Science, philosophy and religion are constantly cited as evidence, yet they provide no real answers, merely endless speculation – even supposedly reliable memories in the form of home movies lay themselves open to reinterpretation.
Everything that Solaris throws at Kelvin, Snaut and Sartorius challenges their perceptions and forces them to look at their world with fresh eyes – and much the same is true of Tarkovsky’s approach to staging the film. Solaris is not, to put it mildly, for people to whom the term “science fiction” means high-speed action-packed escapism – although its glacial pace is eminently justified by the context, if you’re not prepared to surrender to its images and absorb its ideas the chances are you’ll merely be bored and baffled.
Indeed, Tarkovsky himself was never that keen on Solaris - “It’s the worst of my films. I don’t like it. I don’t remember it.” - though this would appear to be more because of a troubled and difficult shoot than any serious artistic failing. True, there’s a certain awkwardness in his approach to the genre – it’s a lot less confident than the later Stalker, for instance – but there are sequences as memorable as anything else in his output: the crosscutting of Kelvin and Hari’s weightlessness with slow pans across the Breughel painting, Burton’s drive through the city, with endless spaghetti-junction motorways forming a landscape quite as intricate and hypnotic as anything in 2001, the recurring motif of characters (Burton, Kelvin and Hari) watching their younger selves on video, the constant reoccurance of images and (especially) sounds to link seemingly disparate scenes.
These moments give Solaris its majesty and show what the cinema is capable of in the hands of one of its supreme masters – and also reveal just how feebly unambitious most sci-fi cinema is by comparison.
Eyebrows may be raised at the decision to split Solaris across two DVDs, but it quickly becomes obvious why - as it's a three-hour film presented at an impressively high bitrate (typically 8 to 9.5 MB/sec) and with three Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks and thirteen subtitle languages, it's clear that Ruscico have very much opted for maximum quality and linguistic versatility over minimal inconvenience. Also, the break has been placed very naturally, though I was disappointed that side one just stopped and cut back to the menu - some kind of warning title might have been nice (part two opens with the original ‘Solaris Part Two’ title card).
But that's pretty much the only disappointing thing about this presentation. While I've had a few reservations about some of Ruscico's other transfers, I'm delighted to report that I have virtually none about Solaris: the picture is quite simply gorgeous. The print is in almost perfect condition - there are a few tiny blemishes here and there (small dust spots, very occasional scratches and faint tramlines), but you really have to look hard for them - and has been given a transfer that does it full justice.
Contrary to a somewhat alarming claim on the box, it's anamorphic, framed at the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, razor-sharp, every shot crammed with fine detail (just look at the slow zoom out from Natalya Bondarchuk's face at the 69-minute mark, where every hair on her head is precisely delineated despite the low light level), equally convincing in both the colour and black-and-white sequences. Black levels are dead on, and there's plenty of shadow detail, whether it's in the haunting landscape shots at the beginning or the darker recesses of the space station.
Only a few minor instances of shimmering (most apparent in pans across the grilled floors and corrugated walls of the space station) and colour shifts (almost certainly inherent in the original materials) prevent me from giving this a perfect 10 - but this is almost certainly much more noticeable on my large-screen setup than it will be on many others. You can also rest assured that the picture problems - jerky movement, apparently - reported on the NTSC version are not apparent on this PAL copy, and I was looking for them!
The soundtrack, too, is a joy to listen to. I'm normally suspicious of the bona fides of 5.1 remixes of tracks that were very definitely originally in mono, but the revamp here has been done so subtly and discreetly that you barely notice.
In fact, as with Viy, most of the time it clearly is mono, but full surround sound kicks in from time to time, most memorably during the early sequence where Burton drives through endless roads in a nightmarish spaghetti junction tangle, where directional traffic sounds blend seamlessly with Eduard Artemyev's abstract electronic score (the biggest beneficiary of the remix - it makes several highly effective appearances).
The technical quality is excellent: virtually no concessions need be made for age, and the dynamic range is significantly wider than I'd have predicted, with no audible dropouts or blemishes of any kind. The only drawback is very mild distortion when voices are raised - almost certainly a casualty of the original recording.
Note that these comments apply to the Russian soundtrack - English and French 5.1 mixes are also provided, and I dipped into the English one, but this film really doesn't gain anything from being seen in a language other than its native one. A vast array of subtitle options is on offer, and the English ones are fine - very occasional grammatical slip-ups, but these are few and far between, and none of them is in any way distracting.
And as if an outstanding transfer wasn't enough, Ruscico have raided the archives again and assembled a fascinating array of extras, with video material covering the director, his two lead actors and the source novelist.
Andrei Tarkovsky is remembered in a moving (if brief) interview with his sister Marina, clocking in at around two minutes. Rather more substantial Tarkovsky reminiscences are on offer in an interview with Natalya Bondarchuk which manages to combine affection with a welcome refusal to gloss over what sounds like a fairly gruelling shoot. Donatas Banionis is represented by a short featurette on his early career, presumably made in the early 1970s, as it devotes a fair amount of time to Goya (1971) and doesn't mention Solaris or any later films at all.
The weirdest extra is a ten-minute extract from the 1978 film Investigation of Pilot Pirks, another adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem story. Frustratingly, this is in Russian without any subtitles, so I can't comment on much of it, except to say that visually it owes more to the low-budget likes of its exact contemporary Blake’s Seven than anything by Tarkovsky!
A stills gallery contains ten mostly colour images from the film, thankfully accessible via well-designed thumbnails as opposed to the usual tedious back-and-forth navigation system.
Two reasonably detailed text biographies of Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanislaw Lem give a general career overview and list of major works. And finally, there's a comprehensive set of filmographies for Tarkovsky and his cast and crew (interestingly, the crew is on disc one while the cast is on disc two) - and it's worth exploring these in full, as there are various trailers buried within them: for Mirror, Andrei Rublev and At Home Among Strangers, A Stranger Among His Own, all future Ruscico releases. The original trailer for Solaris is also included.
All in all, this is a fine package that more than does justice to Tarkovsky’s film – the transfer alone makes it well worth the money, while the extras, though none of them are exactly essential, at least show that Ruscico has put in a fair bit of effort. Amusingly enough, when copies of the NTSC version began to circulate among American DVD importers, Criterion (who own the US rights and who will be releasing their own Solaris DVD in due course) denounced it as a “bootleg” – though rest assured that not only is it entirely legitimate, it’s given Criterion a major challenge to live up to!