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Criterion 164
1972 / Color-B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 169 min. / Solyaris / 2-disc set / Street Date November 26, 2002 / $39.95
Starring Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Jüri Järvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Nikolai Grinko, natoli Solonitsyn, Sos Sarkisyan, Olga Barnet
Cinematography Vadim Yusov
Production Designer Mikhail Romadin
Costume design by Yelena Fomina
Film Editor Lyudmila Feiginova
Original Music Eduard Artemyev
Written by Fridrikh Gorenshtein, Andrei Tarkovsky from the novel by Stanislaw Lem
Produced by Viacheslav Tarasov
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

From the very beginning, Tarkovsky's Solaris carried the critical tagline, 'the Soviet answer to 2001'. The American premiere at the 1972 Filmex in Los Angeles played to an audience that had difficulty making sense of this very long, very slow philosophical meditation in Science Fiction dress.  1


Psychologist and cosmonaut Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) makes the journey to a space platform orbiting the planet Solaris to help decide whether to shut the station down. The scientific investigation called Solaristics has reached a dead end, with theories about the liquid planet leading nowhere. Although all believe the Oceans of Solaris may be a gigantic living being, everyone who has gone to the station has suffered from hallucinations, including Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who claims to have seen miraculous plastic 'communications' by the ocean in the form of huge sculptures.

Kelvin expects to find three scientists at the station, but his old friend Dr. Gibaryan (Sos Sarkisyan) has killed himself. The remaining two, Dr. Snauth and Dr. Sartorius, are living with people who appear to be humanoid simulacra created by the ocean below. As neither scientist will discuss the phantom beings, Kelvin doesn't understand what's going on until he's suddenly confronted by his own wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who simply appears in a locked room. Since the real Hari committed suicide millions of miles away on Earth, Kelvin doesn't know how to react to this living, breathing copy - that is indeed synthetic. Kelvin's mysterious visitor can't drink or eat, and wears a dress with no provision for unfastening. And she's desperate not to be separated from Kelvin.

Frankly, U.S. filmgoers weren't prepared for a combination Sci-fi movie and Ingmar Bergman-style art film; in 1972 the film's general response was a big question mark, practically asking if the movie were a joke. Despite some impressive sets, it's no effects challenge to Kubrick's 2001. But the lavish Russian movie is a remarkable look at the same cosmic mystery from a radically different perspective.

Author Stanislaw Lem wasn't pleased with Tarkovsky's film. Twelve years before, he'd been critical of the East German-Polish version of his first novel ( Astronauci, made as Die Schweigende Stern), for being oversimplified. Here, he complained that Tarkovsky had taken his story and substituted his own humanist theme for the original's scientific riddle.

2001: A Space Odyssey celebrates Mankind's destiny but spends almost all of its time with futuristic hardware, and makes Man the pawn of god-like extra-terrestrials with a master plan for our Childhood's End. Solaris finds man's search for intelligent life in the galaxy to have dead-ended at the gigantic mirror of Solaris' sentient ocean. 'Alien' means different in more than just form, and communication and understanding are impossible for humans who insist that all phenomena fit neatly into our sphere of reference and instruments of observation.

If this were a straight science fiction movie, it might follow the pattern of The Martian Chronicles or even the late Sid Pink's Journey to the 7th Planet, stories in which alien intelligences defend their turf from Earthly incursion by conjuring up hallucinations from our own minds. 2 But Solaris ignores hardware adventure thrills, to instead challenge human motivation for seeking other life forms.

At first glance, Tarkovsky's viewpoint might seem conservative, with the sentiment expressed that, since man is fundamentally unprepared to deal with anything unfamiliar, he should stay close to his womb planet. The narrow-minded scientists in Berton's interrogation video assume that because the Solaris scientists and pilots report inconsistent and irrational phenomena, they must be at fault. Solaris is fascinating because the miracles that the space station scientists witness cannot be hallucinations. Gibaryan's 'visitor' is a young girl whose image is recorded on videotape. Snauth and Sartorius' visitors (mostly unseen) are troublemakers that physically abuse their hosts - every scene shows the scientists suffering from a new injury. Clearly the sentient Ocean is trying to communicate with the aliens in the only way it knows, creating living beings out of thin air.


The only simulacrum we learn more about is Kelvin's visitor. She's a duplicate of his wife who committed suicide, apparently distraught over her relationship with the unemotional scientist. The new Hari clone appears from Kelvin's sleep, as if he had to be unconscious for the Ocean to reach into his mind for the Hari blueprint.  3 This bears some pulp similarity to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, organic invaders who could only copy one's form when they are asleep. When Hari #2 appears for the first time, she has almost no memory beyond her love for Kelvin, and cannot bear to be separated from him. When a metallic door gets in her way, she rips through it, seriously cutting herself. But her physical wounds heal themselves in a matter of minutes. Convinced she's a lamia up to no good, Kelvin packs her away in a rocket, only to have a Hari #3 soon appear out of nowhere, as in a Tex Avery Droopy cartoon. Each new Hari seems to have a memory of the last, and is capable of more human reactions, as if her psychological pattern were slowly emerging. Hari is a product of Kelvin's mind, yet not a phantom - when the first dupe is disposed of, he's left with an extra shawl and dress.

The other two scientists are dealing with their own phantoms, which they theorize might be their own consciences or guilt coming back to haunt them. Sartorius has photos of children, but we can only guess about his particular personal problem; his visitor is briefly glimpsed as a dwarf - as if the Ocean goofed in its first attempt at creating a human child.

Kelvin is confronted with the dilemma straight from Vertigo: feeling guilty for the original Hari's death, he nevertheless murders her not long after 'she' returns. Just as Scotty Ferguson created a new Madeleine, Kelvin gets multiple chances to recreate his lost relationship. His conversion from calculating scientist to a simple seeker of truth and happiness is the film's most positive aspect.

(spoilers continue)

As viewer-voyeurs, we're entranced by Hari, who would be welcome in any man's life whether she were real or not. Sartorius refuses to address Hari directly, and tries to explain to Kelvin that he's in bed with an illusion, essentially masturbating. The character of Hari is one of the better female roles in Science Fiction (if we're still calling this a Sci-fi film) - she's a benign spirit and a breathing, loving woman who dies and is reborn. Her rebirth scene is jarring and erotic at the same time, as we watch the frozen woman thaw back to life in a jerking, spasmodic frenzy. Kelvin likewise warms to Hari and is willing to accept her for what she is, ignoring Snauth's warning that she'll cease to exist if he tries to take her back to Earth. But Hari #3 eventually recovers all of Hari #1's traits, including the original's disillusion and despair.

Solaris stays cleanly on the theoretical plane, becoming perhaps a little preachy toward the end, with a few too many authors' messages piping through. There are several allusions to Don Quixoteand the Cosmonauts quote Cervantes' poetry on the subject of sleep. In Sci-fi terms, I think the Ocean is creating the visitors to investigate what these humans are all about. It's learning what it means to interrelate with similar 'others' (other independent people) instead of existing as a communal shared mass of intelligence, like the alien children of Village of the Damned or the unicellular creatures of Quatermass 2. As research, the Alien effort is a lot more creative than the Earthlings' efforts. Their investigation is limited to blasting the Ocean with X Rays, just to see what crumbles, cookie-wise.

Tarkovsky's production is short on gee-whiz effects, but comes through with very credible settings. The space station is designed not to date, and convinces in that respect, although we wonder where the fresh fruit and flowers are coming from. After a few minutes, the sets shift character and reality like something out of a Philip K. Dick book. Artifacts from Kelvin's Russian home show up, including a religious Icon accompanied by Andrei Rublev-like music. When Kelvin hallucinates, anything goes: a painting of the snow becomes confused with his memories and old movies, and ends up projected in the 'Scope-shaped television screen, like the haunted map of I Bury the Living.

The Russian actors playing the scientists do a fine job of withholding key information. Just what does Snauth have hidden in his room? A giant toad? Brigitte Bardot? Donatas Banionis is soulful and sober, although we would really feel better if he smiled just once or twice. But it's Natalya Bondarchuk's film; she's completely compelling as a devoted zombie who evolves into a woman with a full personality. Perhaps the male-oriented scenario is justified because Hari is a mental creation taken from Kelvin's memories.

I find the visuals in Solaris to be better than adequate. As with the return flight in Die Schweigende Stern, Kelvin's entire space trip is visualized by a static star field. The views of the Ocean are fascinating, looking like high-speed photography of oils or somesuch in a large pool. The ending of one Ocean shot includes the camera slowdown flash frames, an unnecessarily sloppy error.

To be sarcastic, Solaris is not what you'd call fast-paced. Scenes play out in uncut takes, often minutes in length. On Earth, Kelvin stares endlessly at underwater reeds that sway like Hari's hair, with the rhythms of the liquid surface of Solaris. We watch Kelvin sleep for more than a minute in one scene. The most noted (or hated) sequence is Berton's drive back 'into town', which is represented by a very long series of shots taken from a car driving on a modern freeway into what looks like a Japanese city. Savant once had the notion that this was a space-travel substitute for Kelvin's journey to Solaris, a borrowing of Jean-Luc Godard's 'inter-sidereal space' from Alphaville, but ... no. Apparently Tarkovsky just needed the break, or liked the tedium and puzzlement engendered by the sequence. Or needed to remind us that his is not a commercial movie.

Criterion's DVD of Solaris maintains the company's high standards with an impeccable transfer of this Russian classic. I haven't seen the praised Ruscico disc from a season back, but this looks better than the Filmex print (far better subtitle translations) and totally outclasses Image's laser disc from the early 90s. The grain is under control and subtle colors come out in many scenes Even the sometimes irritating cuts to sepia and B&W are attractive.

Owners of the earlier DVD are going to want to know if the extras make this disc worth the plunge, and the answer is a solid yes. An insert contains an essay on the film and a reprint of an article written by Akira Kurosawa on his trip to Moscow to see Tarkovsky. A good commentary by Tarkovsky authors Vida Johnson and Grahame Petrie points out dozens of production details and puzzling inconsistencies that would have gone far over Savant's pulp-Sci-fi head. Then there are interviews with Natalya Bondarchuk (a very charming woman, but no longer an 18 year old, for sure), the cinematographer, the art director and the composer. A too-brief excerpt from a Polish docu on Stanislaw Lem shows the author shoveling snow and griping about the film's liberties with his book. And finally, there's a long list of deleted or altered scenes saved all these years by a Russian archive. It's hard to tell what the differences are in some of them; the only obvious one is a text opening that Tarkovsky deemed unnecessary.

Solaris is a fine-arts classic with a strong humanist appeal for those viewers hardy enough to weather its slow stretches. It will be interesting to see what Steve Soderberg does with his remake. After a spate of bad, effects-driven Mars movies, I'm hoping that the new version is a rethinking more along the lines of Cronenberg's The Fly and not just an excuse for CGI jollies.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Solaris rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: deleted and alternate scenes, interviews with actress and others, excerpt of Polish docu on Stanislaw Lem
Packaging: Double Keep case
Reviewed: November 23, 2002


1. Savant was there for the premiere, albeit as an usher ... The audience was blown away by Solaris' key dramatic scenes, yet stymied by its poorly translated subtitled discussions. After the birthday party scene, the screen went dark and the curtains closed, and the audience of 1800 puzzled Sci-fi fans rose to leave - until a Filmex official ran down the aisle saying, 'Come back, there's still another reel to go!' People laughed and sat down as the film resumed, but many chose to walk out at that point.

2. Both the Bradbury story and the Sid Pink movie predate publication of Solaris, but Journey to the 7th Planet plays like an infantile version of the same basic story. Astronauts on Uranus are confronted with landscapes that suddenly transform into idyllic imitations of the Danish countryside 'back home', complete with buxom Nordic women created right from the Astronauts' own brain patterns. A few blasts from a ray gun, and all is resolved: a glowing brain in a cave is the dream-weaving culprit. Raymond Durgnat in Films and Feelings waxed eclectic in a chapter devoted to the underpinnings of fantasy. There he gave Sci-fi cinema some of its first serious regard, with an analysis of This Island Earth, and noted the un-cinematic graces of a 'turnip' like Seventh Planet, with its brilliant central concept.

3. I keep having to restrain myself from calling the supposed living Ocean The Matmus, the name given a living subterranean lava-lamp being in Roger Vadim's Barbarella.

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