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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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