Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/22/08 w/ Additional Content
Throughout the history of science-fiction in cinema, stories were often told about the wanders of outer space sometimes through humor or in propaganda. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick changed the perception of what sci-fi could be with his adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick's haunting tale of man in outer space came around the time the space race between the Americans and the Soviets were coming to a close. Then in 1972, Russia's premier cinematic director Andrei Tarkovsky, who had help give Russian cinema some international attention amidst the Cold War, created his own take on science fiction in an eerie tale of death and longing based on Stanislaw Lem's novel entitled Solaris.
Solaris tells the story of a widowed psychologist who goes to outer space to enter a space station near a strange planet. Talking to surviving crew members in the space station, he becomes haunted by the images of his late wife. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky with an adapted script written by Tarkovsky and Fridrikh Gorenshtein, the film is a psychological drama about a man exploring an unknown crisis in the space station as his own demons including his late wife come to haunt him. Starring Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Bonionis, Juri Jarvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Nikolai Grinko, Anatoly Solonitsyn, Sos Sargsyan, and Olga Barnet. Solaris is a haunting yet powerful film from the late Andrei Tarkovsky.
Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Bonionis) is walking around the gardens and ponds around his father's home as he awaits for his departure tomorrow for outer space. His mission is to examine a crisis surrounding a space station that's been orbiting a strange, water-like planet called Solaris. Kris' father (Nikolai Grinko) arrives with a former astronaut named Henri Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) who brings film footage of an interrogation he took years ago. Kris and his aunt (Tamara Ogorodnikova) watch the footage where Burton talked about his own exploration around the planet of Solaris as he reveals that he saw a child on the planet's surface during a search for two scientists. With his camera having only footage of clouds, his claims were dismissed as hallucinations. With Kelvin set to depart within hours, Burton tries to give him a warning but Kelvin dismisses Burton's warning as Burton leaves with his son.
With Kelvin now departing, he sets for his journey to the mysterious planet of Solaris and the space station orbiting the planet. Arriving into the space station, he sees that the station is in ruins though still working. Meeting Dr. Snaut (Juri Jarvet), he is warned to not overreact to anything unusual as Kelvin finds himself confused and dismissive. Learning that his friend Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) had committed suicide, he watches Gibarian's final video as he warned Kris of the things he might be seeing. During the video, Kelvin sees a woman on that video where he would follow her to find the body of Gibarian. Just as he went to bed, he finds another woman in his room but in the image of his late wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) who is more puzzled by her appearance in the space station. Kelvin decides to take her to a spaceship where he manages to get her in and then blast the rocket out of the station and into the planet of Solaris.
After realizing that Snaut's warnings were true, Kelvin learns that Hari will return as a duplicate as she sleeps with him and then, just as he was about to go the lab of Dr. Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsyn). She becomes completely distraught and afraid to be alone as she is found badly cut and bleeding. With Kelvin treating her, he is aware that something strange is going on as he turns to Snaut and Sartorius. Realizing that Solaris has created the duplicate of Hari, Sartorius suggests that she is made by neutrinos with a possibility to destroy them. After showing Hari old films of their life, she learns of what she is and asks what happened to her as Snaut and Sartorius each make radical suggestions to deal with apparitions. Snaut wants to use Kelvin's brain waves to communicate with the planet while Sartorius wants to attack with heavy radiation.
A birthday party for Snaut is celebrated that included a reading of Man of La Mancha as a discussion over science occurs. With Hari becoming clear of who she is, only Kelvin clings on to her desperately as Snaut reveals what Solaris is in a metaphorical sense. Now, haunted by the demons of his life including a dream about his mother (Olga Barnet), Kelvin ponders what he should do about himself and everything he believed in.
While the film's plot is about a man who goes to space to observe a crisis only to become haunted by his own guilt over his wife's suicide. The film is really a metaphor in some ways about death, life after death, coping, and resurrection. Yet, it is the approach of director and co-screenwriter Andrei Tarkovsky took that makes this film more startling. While the film's pacing is slow, something that probably a majority of audiences will complain about. It's only because Tarkovsky is trying to create something where as if time has slowed down as Kris Kelvin is about to embark on this unknown journey.
The first forty-minutes of the film is set on Earth as Tarkovsky shows the audience of this world that Kris is about to leave while a man is trying to warn of what's happening in Solaris. Through interrogations and other metaphoric images that includes an extended sequence of Burton riding into the highways of Japan. It creates an idea of what Kelvin could be leaving behind. Something that might seem to harsh and mechanical. Whereas once he enters the space station and the nearby surroundings of Solaris, the haunting apparition of his wife Hari appears and because he's so filled with guilt and shame. The possibility of just being with her in outer space might seem like a better idea but resurrection comes with a price.
It's Tarkovsky's approach to the themes that he's presenting as well as his observant, eerie direction that provides a haunting quality as if something suspenseful is going to happen. Well, that doesn't really happen but instead, Tarkovsky goes for restrained, emotional drama along with discussions of science and faith. Then there's his compositions, particularly his staging of the flashback scenes. Some of it is based on paintings that draw a sense of emotion for longing and loss while giving the idea that his film has the same emotional similarity that these paintings have. The scenes in the space station have an intimate yet eerie quality filled with tracking shots and dolly to give the sense of something futuristic and ghost-like. Yet, as the film ends, it reveals of the decisions that Kelvin has made and what he has to live with. In the end, Tarkovsky doesn't give an easy answer nor a resolution that will satisfy everyone. In his direction, Tarkovsky has made a film that is truly haunting yet engrossing about the subject of death and disconnection.
Cinematographer Vadim Yusov brings a unique look to the film with is stark yet fluid camera work with its exterior setting. Yet, shots that have a sense of discolored look from the brown-tan look of the TV and flashback scenes to the grey, colored look of sleeping and dream-like sequences. Yusov's lighting for the interior space station scenes are truly superb from its heightened lighting for the day scenes to a very dark look in Snaut's birthday party scene. Yusov's photography is a real highlight of the film. Editors Lyudmila Feiginova and Nina Marcus do an excellent job with the editing in the use of dissolves and transitional cuts to maintain a sense of aura to the film despite its sluggish pacing that works to convey the film’s eerie tone. Production designer Mikhail Romadin does a fantastic job in creating the look of the future from the space station in its interior design to the home and big TV in the Earth sequences.
Costume designer Yelena Fomina does a fine job with the film's costume design from the looks of the clothes the men wear to the dress that Hari wears throughout the entire duration in the station. The film's special effects and sound work is truly extraordinary to convey the idea of the future. The sound work has a robotic feel that works to convey the atmosphere inside the space station. Yet, the special effects for its time are wonderful with its use of clouds and visual collages to create the world that is Solaris. The film's music by electronic musician Eduard Artemyev is wonderfully haunting with chimes and bells to create a vibrant atmosphere while Artemyev's take on Bach's Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ adds a sense of melancholia to the film in its opening and the flashback sequences.
The film's cast is filled with a wonderful array of actors with small performances from Tamara Ogorodnikova as Kelvin's aunt, Georgi Tejkh as a professor interviewing Burton, Yulian Semyonov as a chairman at that interview, Olga Kizilova as Gibarian's apparition guest, and Olga Barnet as Kelvin's mother. Sos Sargsyan is excellent in his small role as Dr. Gibarian who makes warnings to Kelvin about what's happening in the station while Nikolai Grinko is also excellent as Kelvin's father who tries to help get ready for his departure while understanding what he could be dealing with. Anatoly Solonitsyn is great as the cold Dr. Sartorius whose emphasis on science over everything makes him someone who wants to destroy the apparitions that is going on while treating Hari with a cold indifference.
Juri Jarvet is brilliant in his role as the sympathetic Dr. Snaut who is clearly the film's conscience. Jarvet's performance is wonderfully subtle and calm as he tries to make an understanding both scientifically and humanly while being one of the few friends Kelvin can count on. Vladislav Dvorzhetsky is also great as Henri Burton, a man haunted by his own experience in the Solaris experiment as he tries to make serious warnings to Kelvin over what is happening.
Donatas Bonionis is amazing in his role as Kris Kelvin, the psychologist sent to space only to be haunted by the demons in his past. Bonionis' performance is truly superb in how fragile his character had become and to realize his own guilt and shame that lead to the apparition of Hari that he longs for to heal all that guilt. The best performance truly goes to Natalya Bondarchuk as Hari, an apparition of Kelvin's wife who becomes aware of what happened to her and her longing for Kelvin. Bondarchuk's performance is truly the most emotional as she has the traits to act human despite her knowledge that she is just an apparition who often kills herself over and over again.
The 2002 2-disc Criterion Collection Special Edition Region 1 DVD for Solaris is one of the most treasured films in the Criterion Collection. Presented with a new high-definition digital transfer with restored picture and sound. The film is also shown in the original 2:35:1 theatrical aspect ratio for widescreen televisions. With the remastered sound presented in Russian with proper English subtitles, the film is shown in a new, mesmerizing form.
The first disc of the DVD features the film in its entirety with a commentary track by two Andrei Tarkovsky scholars in Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, the co-authors of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. The commentary features insight into Tarkovsky’s belief that filmmaking is a collaboration as well as not giving into the pressures of the Soviet Union at the time the film was made. It’s also revealed about Tarkovsky’s relationship with his collaborators and actors, notably Donatis Banionis. Though Tarkovsky and Banionis had a hard time working with each other, Tarkovsky was happy with his performance. Also talked about is the locations and mood that Tarkovsky wanted for the film. The highway sequence was shot in Tokyo to convey a city of the future for Eastern audiences as opposed to Western audiences.
The talk about budget restraints for the film was revealed into why Tarkovsky didn’t put a lot of emphasis on special effects. Even as its revealed that Tarkovsky was not a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. During the film’s second half, Johnson and Petrie delve into the film’s themes as well as the performance of Natalya Bondarchuk, who was 18 when she did the film. Unlike Banionis, Tarkovsky had an easier time working with Bondarchuk who practically surprised the entire cast. Johnson and Petrie also talk about the Soviet Union’s hesitant to release the film as well as the cuts they wanted where in the end, Tarkovsky won when he released the film at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Prize. It’s a wonderful commentary that talks about the film as well as Tarkovsky’s background.
The second disc is filled with numerous special features relating to the film. The first are nine deleted/alternate scenes cut out from an earlier version to make way for Tarkovsky’s final cut of the film. The first is a scene with opening text which is a magazine interview with Kelvin and his thoughts on science over faith that would precede the opening shot of the film. The second deleted scene is where Burton shows what he filmed during his trip to Solaris during his interrogation as he, Kelvin, and Kelvin’s aunt watch. The third scene is an alternate/extended scene of Kelvin’s departure from Earth and arrival to the space station that includes additional dialogue during his travel. The fourth scene is a deleted scene where Kelvin is leaving his room to get food where Hari is worried if he would return.
The fifth scene is a short deleted scene that was to start the film’s second half where Kelvin takes Hari to the space capsule where they’re both wearing suits while Snaut listens to the conversation before they leave. The sixth scene is an extended scene preceding to Hari’s declaration of love to Kelvin where Kelvin eats dinner while Hari feels disgusted about what she is while dealing with his guilt. The seventh is an extended scene of Kelvin being sick as in the mirror room with numerous Haris plus an appearance from his mother which features a shot of Tokyo as well as papers being on fire. The eighth scene is an alternate scene of Kelvin meeting his mother in a dream which features a few extended shots and dialogue. The last scene is an alternate scene of Snaut and Kelvin finally coming to the conclusion about the apparitions with additional dialogue about what happened to Hari.
The next big part of the special features are four interviews relating to the film. The first is a 32-minute interview with actress Natalya Bondarchuk. Bondarchuk talks about her first meeting with Tarkovsky years before the making of the film when she was just a teenager. She was a fan of the novel Solaris while years later when the film was set to go into production. She auditioned and was well-received but Tarkovsky felt she wasn’t right though did get her a part for another film for another director. Months later, unable to find another actress, the director showed footage to Tarkovsky as he realized Bondarchuk was the right person all along. Bondarchuk also goes into detail about Tarkovsky’s directing style to the way he would create scene to how he would direct actors. She stated that part of her inspiration for the her performance was The Little Mermaid and how that character struggled to love a human being.
Bondarchuk, who later became a film director, talked about how much winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes meant a lot to Tarkovsky and the Soviet Union film industry. Even though they didn’t like the film nor the fact that Tarkovsky won an award from the Vatican as well since the money he got was something Tarkovsky needed to survive. Bondarchuk also talked about her personal relationship with Tarkovsky along with the things that happened when he was dying from cancer while she was in France. It’s a wonderful interview that is informative with a mixture of humor in the way Bondarchuk describes Tarkovsky’s personality.
The second interview is a 34-minute interview with cinematographer Vadim Yusof. Yusof discusses his collaboration with Tarkovsky and how they met during film school. The two worked together up till Solaris. During a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the two were amazed by the visual effects though there were some ideas of Kubrick they didn’t agree with. Yusof also talks about some of the effects shot including how some shots during the scenes on Earth where luck was involved for some of those shots. Notably the last sequence which were all shot as it was going on though Tarkovsky was a perfectionist.
Yusov also talked about the moments when he and Tarkovsky argued but it was always about the technical things and never personal issues. Yusov talks about a scene he shot for Andrei Rublev where the two had a hard time figuring out how to create a scene. After a split with the two following the release of Solaris, the last time Yusof saw Tarkovsky was in Milan following the completion of Nostalghia. They talked and everything while their last conversation was seven months later where Tarkovsky was getting difficulty getting funds for his next project since he was by that time, a Soviet defector. Yusof revealed that in the Soviet Union, it was easier to get funds and support but outside of that, during that time, it wasn’t which made things difficult.
The third is a 17-minute interview with art director Mikhail Romadin. Romadin talks about his friendship with Tarkovsky dating back to film school though didn’t work together until Andrei Rublev. Romadin only worked on doing the flying scene for Rublev but it was enough for Tarkovsky to hire him for his next project Solaris. Romadin reveals that part of Tarkovsky’s dislike towards 2001 was over its utopian look as he and Romadin decided to make their space station look like something that the Russian could relate to whether it looked like a beaten-down bus.
Romadin revealed that during production, Akira Kurosawa visited the set to meet with Russian film executives as he was impressed by the look of the space station. It was there that Kurosawa decided to work with the Russians for his 1975 film Dersu Uzala. Romadin also talks about Tarkovsky’s directing style which he feels is similar to Federico Fellini in terms of creating a film like a live painting. Though Tarkovsky’s approach was very different. It’s a great interview that also includes the difference between the filmmaking style of Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, the latter of which thinks of film as a form of literature.
The fourth and final is a 21-interview with composer Eduard Artemyev. Artemyev discusses his first meeting with Tarkovsky through Romadin just after the release of Andrei Rublev. The two both had a love of classical composers, notably Bach whom Tarkovsky adored more than anyone. Artemyev also talked about his background through many schools while being one of the first individuals to play a synthesizer in the Soviet Union. Artemyev also talked about how he and Tarkovsky didn’t want a traditional score but rather sound textures for the film. While they used music by Bach performed by Artemyev for the scenes on Earth and other emotional scenes. The rest was a combination of sound replications of nature.
Artemyev also talked about creating the sound collages which were early ideas of ambient music in order to create moods for the film. Artemyev revealed that when Tarkovsky was shooting the last scene of the film, he was making the same score piece for that scene around the same time. Though he was aware of Tarkovsky’s perfectionism, he was able to voice his opinions during the production of the film. While it was known that Tarkovsky had immense contempt towards the Soviet film system, he knew he needed to work with them in order to get funding. Artemyev’s interview is truly fascinating in revealing Tarkovsky’s personality and work method.
The last big special feature is a five-minute documentary excerpt with Stanislaw Lem, the novelist of Solaris. The short segment reveals the importance of Lem’s novel to Poland as it was a huge international breakthrough for the novelist. Even as Lem became the most famous novelist in Poland. Some of Lem’s colleagues reveal about the difference between the novel and Tarkovsky’s film adaptation. Notably for the fact that Tarkovsky was more connected to the idea of returning to Earth. Though Lem didn’t like the film and had issues with that what Tarkovsky wanted to say, he did at least give Tarkovsky permission to make the film.
In the booklet are two essays relating to the film. The first is from Phillip Lopate who delves into Tarkovsky’s personality and his influence in cinema. Even as he talks about the film, its themes, and the impact it would have just as Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 adaptation was set to be released. Lopate’s essay is definitely an insightful read that reveals how importance Solaris is to the film world.
The second essay is from the legendary Akira Kurosawa from a newspaper article about the film and later, reprinted in a book about the legendary Japanese director. In the essay, Kurosawa talked about how he met Tarkovsky during a visit to Mosfilm studios in his first visit to the Soviet Union. He heard noises at one of the buildings where Tarkovsky was shooting the film as he visited the set amazed by its look. During the shoot, he met another renowned Russian filmmaker in Sergei Bondarchuk, the father of the film’s star Natalya. He learned that his film War and Peace was made in the same budget as Solaris where its cost in Japanese currency was 600 million yen.
Kurosawa also refutes complaints that the film is too long as he felt that the length was perfect for its tone. Even as he chatted with Tarkovsky where the shy director got drunk at a restaurant where he sang the theme to Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. The essay is truly one of the finest pieces of text ever written while it shows Kurosawa’s enthusiasm for the film and Tarkovsky as it’s definitely the best complement from one great director to another. The DVD itself is definitely another hallmark in the Criterion Collection library as it is definitely a must-have for film buffs.
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When it premiered at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, it walked away with FIPRESCI critics prize and the Grand Jury Prize. Once it premiered in the Soviet Union in early 1973, it was only seen by a limited audience despite rave reviews and was then, finally shown to the U.S. in 1976 but with more than thirty-minutes cut from the final cut of the film. Despite Tarkovsky's faithful version to Stanislaw Lem's novel, the novelist wasn't happy with Tarkovsky's version while years later, Tarkovsky confessed that despite being considered to be one of his finest films. Tarkovsky confessed in a documentary that Solaris is his least favorite film that he made. In 2002, thirty years after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, American director Steven Soderbergh released his own adaptation of Solaris starring George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, and Viola Davis. Like Tarkovsky's version, the film also was seen by a small audience despite good reviews.
The 1972 adaptation of Solaris is a brilliant, eerie, and powerful film from Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky. While it's not a film that is easy to watch due to its sluggish, slow pacing that is a turn off for mainstream audiences. Fans of foreign and art-house films might appreciate it for its tone and study of humanity and death. With a great cast led by Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Bonionis, it's a film that is filled with spectacular performances, great special effects, a haunting score, and themes that is powerful to a wide audience despite its tone. In the end, Andrei Tarkovsky's adaptation of Solaris is a must-see for anyone who wants very human stories set in the world of science fiction
Andrei Tarkovsky Films: Ivan's Childhood - Andrei Rublev - The Mirror - Stalker - Nostalghia - The Sacrifice
Related: Solaris (2002 film) - The Short Films of Andrei Tarkovksy - Voyage in Time - One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich - The Auteurs #14: Andrei Tarkovsky
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