BluRay/DVD Reviews

SOLARIS

By • Jun 23rd, 2011 •

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There’s never been a more different breed of science fiction filmmaking than the kind Andrei Tarkovsky got to the screen. Tarkovsky films are challenging, slow-moving, and full of extremely long tracking shots and introverted, damaged characters. There’s a precision to the way every last part of the frame is utilized, and a bizarre, almost subliminal brand of storytelling and characterization. You feel as disconnected from the proceedings as the characters, only to be pulled in as close to the action as possible at precise moments.

Working from a novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, Tarkovsky crafts an eerie love story as psychologist Kris Kelvin journeys to evaluate a group of scientists on a space station orbiting the mysterious world of Solaris, a seemingly sentient planet that conjures up figures from one’s memories. Kelvin’s late wife appears to him as the other scientists on the station debate whether or not they should continue their dangerous and mentally-damaging research.

Tarkovsky seems determined to ignore and bend every facet of science fiction filmmaking in telling his story. It’s a slow character study that has a deliberate, often glacial pace, and a lack of visual effects (there is only one exterior shot of the space station in the entire film). Worth noting is a sequence where Kelvin’s friend, a former cosmonaut, is driven through Tokyo in a five-minute scene without dialogue. There’s much speculation around the reason for this being in the movie, the most popular of which is that Tokyo in 1972 looked incredibly futuristic and advanced to Soviet audiences in the same era.

It’s elements like that, coupled with the dense allegorical content, that make SOLARIS a very tough sit. However, it’s a thoroughly rewarding film that you’ll be going over in your head for weeks if not months to come. Just keep in mind that this is more ‘art’ than ‘film’, and that your patience will be rewarded in the end.

SOLARIS is one of those movies that had a convoluted release history. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972, winning a Grand Jury Prize, and at some point was recut by Tarkovsky to a shorter length. In spite of running afoul of censors, it played in limited runs for over 10 years in the Soviet Union, with showings frequently selling out. SOLARIS didn’t have an actual stateside release until 1976, when it was shown dubbed in English and missing over 30 minutes of footage. The full-length Russian-language version didn’t play to a public audience in America until 1989, at the reopening of the Film Forum theater in New York.

Though it contains a plethora of deleted and alternate material, Criterion’s Blu-Ray misses out on the shorter English dubbed version, which would compliment how far the film has come (a’ la Criteron’s THE LEOPARD and BRAZIL packages). Also missing is the previous 1968 TV movie adaptation of the novel, which would also serve as a good comparison. The supplements we do get however are quite good (including an essay by Akira Kurosawa), and it’s topped with a typically immaculate new transfer. This transfer actually corrects an error from the older DVD; many of the black-and-white sequences were supposed to have a light blue tint to them, and this version remedies that.

Though it’s a tough sit no matter how many times you watch it, SOLARIS is a truly unique science fiction story, and Tarkovsky’s approach to the material is so incredibly different from the norm that it holds up remarkably well today. Hopefully Criterion releases more Tarkvosky on DVD and Blu-Ray soon, as this is quite an impressive title.

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