“Unfortunately the science fiction element in Solaris was too prominent and became a distraction. The rockets and space stations — required by Lem’s novel — were interesting to construct; but it seems to me now that the idea of the film would have stood out more vividly and boldly had we managed to dispense with these things altogether.”
– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
“Don’t turn a scientific problem into a common love story.”
– Dr. Snaut in Solaris
Newly released on Blu-ray is Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi masterpiece Solaris, the first of the maverick director’s films to receive an HD upgrade and thus a cause for celebration. Not only is the Criterion Collection’s release a splendid looking and sounding disc, it represents a real improvement over its earlier SD counterpart in ways both subtle and obvious. The most crucial difference, and the one that should have all Tarkovsky acolytes readily willing to “double dip” for the Blu-ray, is that some of the film’s black-and-white sequences have now been restored to their original blue-tinting following Tarkovsky’s wishes. This reason alone justifies upgrading one’s version of Solaris but there are other areas of improvement cinephiles will be thankful for as well.
Based on the celebrated novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris tells the futuristic story of Russian cosmonaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), assigned by the government to investigate the strange goings-on in a space station that is orbiting the title planet; one of the scientists aboard the station has mysteriously disappeared, one has committed suicide and the others have begun to experience visual and aural hallucinations. Kelvin’s job is to make a report on the mental health of the remaining two scientists but upon arriving he too begins succumbing to inexplicable visions, such as the mysterious reappearance of Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), his deceased wife who had committed suicide ten years before the film’s narrative proper begins. Eventually, Kelvin realizes that the mysterious Solaris Ocean has the power to make manifest the innermost thoughts of anyone who comes near it. The very concrete nature of these hallucinations (Kelvin is capable of contacting Hari physically and his fellow scientists share his hallucinations of her) allow Tarkovsky to ask the philosophical question of what the value would be of interacting with a person conjured up by one’s own id – if one also knew deep down that, no matter how seemingly empirically verifiable, the person in question was not in fact “real.” The question becomes trickier as the plot progresses because the longer Hari exists as a hallucination, the more she appears capable of developing her own independent consciousness.
This description probably makes Solaris sound more action-packed than it is. The film clocks in at two hours and forty-seven minutes and unfolds at a languid (some would say glacial) pace as Tarkovsky often lets shots tick past the two-minute mark before cutting. Unusual for science fiction, he also continually references classical works of art from the Venus de Milo and Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow to Faust and Don Quixote to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bach. Finally, there is an intentional dearth of the sort of “special effects” one typically associates with the genre, although Tarkovsky’s crew built elaborate sets for the space station interiors. But even this last aspect was apparently too much for the great director, whose monk-like sense of artistic purity led him to rue having to acknowledge these relatively modest genre trappings. This is probably why he later referred to Solaris as the weakest of his films, barely giving it a mention in his essential memoir Sculpting in Time. I would argue however that Tarkovsky was dead wrong; I find Solaris the perfect balance of big budget filmmaking and big ideas, resulting in an uncommonly soul-stirring exploration of the “inner space” of memory and conscience. The film’s dirge-like rhythms and supernatural cinematography (all misty landscapes and roiling ocean surfaces) as well as the riddle-like plot (here is a movie that demands and rewards multiple viewings!) contribute to the awesome hypnotic power that Tarkovsky could generate in his very best work. I also personally find it infinitely preferable to his last two films, the shot-in-Italy Nostalghia and the shot-in-Sweden The Sacrifice, where he was essentially handcuffed into making the films of a tourist (in the former case a semi-autobiographical film about a Russian artist in exile, in the latter an Ingmar Bergman imitation).
As for the aforementioned blue-tinted black-and-white shots, Tarkovsky uses them primarily for flashback sequences, or at least scenes meant to recall the past, such as the scene where Kelvin attempts to eradicate memories by burning documents and photographs associated with his past before leaving Earth. However, as the film progresses and Tarkovsky begins to blur the lines between past and present, reality and fantasy, memory and imagination, these “blue shots” begin to intrude at seemingly random intervals. (A true cinematic poet, Tarkovsky would never carry out a system of color-coding that could be understood entirely in logical, intellectual terms.) But the blue-tinting serves another crucial function that was lost in Criterion’s earlier non-blue-tinted DVD transfer: it makes explicit the connection between the memories and fantasies of Kelvin and the similarly tinted images that appear on the space station’s video monitors. Memories and fantasies are like films, Tarkovsky seems to be saying, capable of being watched and rewatched forever in the movie theaters of our minds.
Criterion created this new HD transfer from a 35mm low-contrast print struck directly from the original negative and it looks astonishingly good (as one would expect coming from this label). The Blu-ray makes a commendable leap forward over previous home video editions in terms of its film-like properties including a nice sheen of grain that no doubt accurately represents the film’s theatrically projected look. While Tarkovsky’s color films all share a relatively soft and moody palette, the colors on this Blu-ray “pop” in a way that they never have on home video until now. The audio is likewise improved with Bach’s “Choral Prelude in F Minor” sounding particularly robust and pleasing on the lossless mono track. One can only hope that Criterion will soon see fit to present Andrei Roublev, Tarkovsky’s greatest film, with the same loving treatment.