Solaris (1972) (Blu-ray)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 166 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Russian
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: May 24, 2011
Review Date: May 17, 2011
After Stanley Kubrick both bewildered and delighted sci-fi fans with his epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, it seems as if Andrei Tarkovsky must have wanted some pieces of that mix of conundrum and enchantment to work just as harmoniously with his 1972 film Solaris. As frequently confounding on one’s first visit to 2001 was, Solaris seems clearer on repeat trips to its far out horizons. Kubrick’s mammoth film can’t be matched in terms of its sci-fi paraphernalia (especially for its time), but Tarkovsky’s epic may have the upper hand in emotional impact. It’s not as awesome a spectacle, of course, but despite its eternally slow pace, it manages to hold one’s interest through the slower, less interesting passages.
Strange events have been going on at a space station hovering above the planet Solaris for quite some time, so space psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to investigate, his report being the determining factor in whether the station will remain open or be shut down. At the station resides its last two scientists Snaut (Yuri Yarvet) who is in charge of the facility and seems to have something of a grasp of its secrets and the prickly Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsyn). As reported by astronaut Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), the oceans of Solaris seem to have an effect on the minds of those on the station conjuring up hyper-real hallucinations that are impossible to get rid of. In Kris’ case, his hallucination is of his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) who’s been dead for a decade. Initially he resists the temptation of believing she’s real, but eventually, he can’t deny his love for the creation, and she in turn seems to be changing into human form the more she experiences the outgoing affection from Kris.
Dealing with metaphysical issues of the nature of man and the elements, the real and the imaginary, the power of love versus the negative effects of longing, Tarkovsky’s screenplay (co-written with Fridrikh Gorenshtein and adapted from a book written by Stanislaw Lem) emphasizes the humanity of the situation and lessens any temptation to focus on the sci-fi aspects of the story (making comparisons to 2001 rather pointless in that regard). The growing feelings that Kris and faux-Hari experience are rather heartbreaking throughout, and Tarkovsky keeps the camera close (even in widescreen Sovscope) so we can see every flicker of an eyelash (or in the case of one extended shot, hairs growing out of an ear). True, he tends to dawdle over moments that just aren’t that interesting (several minutes spent scanning Breughel’s masterwork “Hunters in the Snow” in intricate detail; the climactic payoff wasn’t really worth the time), and he segues between black and white and color to no real purpose (except for a filmed report which makes sense in monochrome; the director was dealing with a shortage of color film stock but the transitions are sometimes jarring and nonsensical). It takes real patience to draw everything out of the rich palette the director is offering, and many may balk before the end due to the measured pacing and controlled emotions on display through much of the film, but the concluding scenes do have impact and are worth the wait.
Natalya Bondarchuk has some rich scenes as Hari which, even at age eighteen, she handled with aplomb. Donatas Banionis is really the heartbreaking spine of the movie, however, as the lonely and hopelessly in love Kris Kelvin. Emotions flicker across his face through the film’s more than two and a half hours, and watching him work will provide much enjoyment even for those who may find the languid pacing of the film a trial. Yuri Yarvet shows authority as the man in charge of the space station, and Anatoly Solonitsyn is his match as the hard-to-pin down Sartorius.
The film’s 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented I 1080p using the AVC codec. All of the black and white footage is stunning to watch, crisp and detailed with superb contrast. The color footage in the first ninety minutes is less sharp and satisfying. Color values are certainly acceptable, but details that normally pop in high definition don’t during many of these initial sequences. The film’s last eighty minutes or so offer a great improvement in clarity and intricate details. Color saturation seems more solid, and flesh tones are more appealing. The image throughout is very clean, but black levels are not the transfer’s strong suit being rather lackluster. The subtitles, sometimes ivory and something a pale yellow, are easy to read. The film has been divided into 32 chapters.
The PCM (1.1 Mbps) 1.0 audio track is one of the quietest you’ll ever experience, especially for a film of this age. Any age-related hissing, popping, crackling, or fluttering has been eliminated, and when things are quiet (as are lengthy passages of the movie), there is utter silence. Dialogue was post synched and is always discernible (if rather arid). Music doesn’t possess much fidelity until the climactic passages of the movie where it begins to soar.
The audio commentary is provided by Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie who deliberately swap off comments back and forth throughout the epic running time of the film. They offer facts about the production and offer opinions about ultimate possible meanings of the scenes throughout. Fans of the movie will find this a must-listen.
All of the video featurettes are presented in 1080i.
There are nine deleted/extended scenes which may be viewed separately or in one 25-minute bunch.
Actress Natalya Bondarchuk offers opinions about the director and his work along with stories concerning how she got the part, her definition of art, good times and bad times in their work together, and other information about her long career before and behind the camera in this 32 ¼-minute interview.
The film’s cinematographer Vadim Yusov talks for 34 minutes on his experiences with the director, not only on this film but on others. He also mentions his initial meeting with Tarkovsky, the origins of the project, comparisons to 2001, how the ocean effects were achieved, and location filming.
Art director Mikhail Romadin offers an entertaining interview which discusses his first encounter with the legendary director as well as their shared dislike for science fiction. This runs 16 ¾ minutes.
Composer Eduard Artemyev talks about his education in composition, his frustrating meetings with the director about scoring the film, and techniques he used specifically in working on his movies. This runs 21 ¾ minutes.
A very brief excerpt from a TV biography of author Stanislaw Lem stresses the author’s dissatisfaction with the film of his book. It runs 5 minutes.
The enclosed 21-page booklet contains the chapter listing, cast and crew lists, some color stills from the movie, writer Phillip Lopate’s analysis of the film, and a celebratory essay on the director and his movie by director Akira Kurosawa.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
A difficult and challenging philosophical think piece on life’s mysteries and meanings, Solaris won’t be for all tastes, but this new Blu-ray release features excellent picture and sound and ports the contents of the previous DVD release onto a single Blu-ray disc. For the patiently curious, this comes with a firm recommendation.