Criterion // 1972 // 166 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 18th, 2011
"We don't want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don't want other worlds; we want a mirror." -- Dr. Snaut
When I was a young kid, reading some of the greats of golden-era science fiction, I had no idea that the genre which I took for granted was a site of much contention. There were those who argued that the science in science fiction was the most important aspect, which gave us so called "hard" sci-fi. Still others, writing material that wasn't mainstream fiction but wasn't "hard" sci-fi, preferred SF as a genre tag. SF was chosen because it was the initials of science fiction, but also of speculative fiction and social fiction, which opens the term up considerably while still getting at the heart of what science fiction has always been about: some kind of speculation, usually about the social. An entire history of the science fiction genre isn't necessary here, but Solaris demonstrates exactly why there was contention about terms among fans. While the film contains a number of genre trappings (much of it takes place in space, it's essentially about alien contact), the film is less concerned with the details of interstellar contact than the far reaches of the human mind. These aspects make Solaris a controversial science fiction film, even as director Andrei Tarkovsky's brilliant camera clothes the film in absolute beauty. Criterion has updated their original 2002 DVD of this controversial classic, and the results are absolutely stunning.
Based on the book by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris tells the story of a mission to study the planet Solaris that has gone awry. The scientists onboard the space station orbiting Solaris have been having trouble, including hallucinations and death. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis, The Red Tent) is dispatched to determine the state of the mission and if it should be continued. Once onboard, he discovers that he too seems to be under the influence of some powerful force, and that force may be the sentient planet Solaris.
No less a filmmaker than Ingmar Bergman said that Tarkovsky has "invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream." That last point is the most significant one: Tarkovsky created films that capture the life of dreams. Tarkovsky, a Russian director working in the Soviet Union, started his career making essentially realist films in the 1960s. When the last of these (Andrei Rublev) came under fire from censors, Tarkovsky returned to filmmaking with a trio of films in the 1970s (starting with Solaris) that subsumed his realist elements in the cloak of genre trappings and dream imagery.
The result is a science fiction film in the loosest sense. We've got interstellar travel, a space station, and apparent contact with an alien entity, but this isn't a Ridley Scott film. No, Solaris is like inhabiting a dream, one which just happens to take place in space. Like the best dreams, Solaris is filled with beautiful, weird moments and organic connections that seem to defy logical analysis (one of the main reasons the film probably annoyed so many sci-fi fans). With cinema as his probe, Tarkovsky interrogates human consciousness, where dream, hallucination, and reality meet at the edge of space.
Criterion originally released Solaris as a double-disc DVD set in 2002, and now that nine years have passed we get a hi-def upgrade of this Soviet classic. That disc looked amazing, especially for its age, but this hi-def presentation blows it out of the water. The 2.35:1 AVC encoded transfer is simply stunning. Detail is generally strong, with excellent color reproduction (just look at the film's opening moments; those floating weeds haven't looked this good since the film's original theatrical exhibition), and black levels are consistent and deep. The film has some scenes in black-and-white, and those moments are even more impressive of the simplicity of the color scheme. There are still some problems, though. Some of the film appears to be soft (which is at least partially intentional, but makes the video here difficult to judge), and the print itself isn't in perfect shape, with occasional surface specks and scratches. The original Russian audio is presented here in an uncompressed mono track. It's limited by the source materials, but considering the film's age this track seems totally appropriate.
The already impressive extras from that previous Criterion set have been ported over to this Blu-ray. They start with a commentary by scholars Graham Petrie and Vida Johnson, who co-authored a book on Tarkovsky. The pair is very knowledgeable, and speaks broadly about Tarkovsky's career, the production of the film, and Tarkvosky's themes (even when they disagree with Tarkvosky himself about what those themes might be). It's a bit of an academic track, but for fans of that style of commentary, it's great. Next up are 25 minutes of deleted scenes (which would have ballooned the film to over three hours if they were included). Finally, the disc includes five interviews with those involved with the making of Solaris, including the art director, cinematographer, and the author of the original novel, Stanislaw Lem. The usual Criterion booklet includes a thoughtful essay by Peter Lopate, and an "appreciation" of the film by Akira Kurosawa.
Solaris is a long (165 minutes!), often slow film. To create his dreamlike qualities, Tarkovsky relies on long takes, many of them static shots. The film requires a patience and a very open mind. In some ways, it's a film you have to learn how to watch. Those looking for a slam-bang sci-fi action film, or even a special effects extravaganza like 2001: A Space Odyssey will likely be disappointed by Solaris. Tarkovsky himself was apparently disappointed, claiming he was unsuccessful in "transcending" the constraints that the genre put on him.
Upgrade decisions are not made easier with this disc. Certainly this is the best the film has looked on home video, but fans who already own the previous Criterion release own all the extras, which means upgrading is going to come down to budget and love of this particular film.
Solaris is a firmly arty film that uses cinema to explore human consciousness. Its dreamlike atmosphere and glacial pace may turn off some viewers, but those who stick with the film will be rewarded with some of the most beautiful images in cinema. Criterion have done their usual great work upgrading this film for hi-def, and this release should definitely be the standard way to watch Solaris on home video.
Despite its slow pace, Solaris is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (Russian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 166 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes