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Ground control has been receiving strange transmissions from the remaining residents of the Solaris space station. When cosmonaut and psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to investigate, he experiences the strange phenomena that afflict the Solaris crew, sending him on a voyage into the darkest recesses of his own consciousness. In Solaris, the legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev) gives us a brilliantly original science-fiction epic that challenges our conceptions about love, truth, and humanity itself.
Criterion issued a double disc of Andrei Tarkovsky's haunting Solaris in 2002, so what's new about this 2011 release? The actual transfer of the film, that's what: this hi-def version is absolutely lush in its colors and textures, from the eerie waving of underground reeds in the Earth sequences to the swirling oceans of the planet Solaris. The difference could be a game-changer, even if you're already a fan of the film; when a director seeks to put you through a complete aural-visual experience, the detail is everything. The other special features are retained from the previous Criterion set, and they are definitive: half-hour interviews with the marvelously descriptive actress Natalya Bondarchuck and cinematographer Vadim Yusov, a 16-minute interview with art director Mikhail Romadin (who remembers Tarkovsky's reaction to seeing the great special effects of 2001: "Let's make ours look like a broken-down old bus and not a futuristic fantasy"), and a 21-minute talk with the film's inventive composer, Eduard Artemyev. About 25 minutes of alternate or deleted scenes are interesting if not essential. The commentary track, with Graham Petrie and Vida Johnson, is formal but informed, and Phillip Lopate's essay sets the table nicely. --Robert Horton
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Sadly, Tarkovsky's best-known movie is not nearly well-known enough. This is not a "Star Trek" style narrative where there is a problem to be solved -- It's a quiet, contemplative sci-fi movie that uses an alien planet as the backdrop for one man's wounded soul to be healed. You may need to watch it a few times to fully absorb its meaning, but its beauty and sorrow are enough to pull you in.
Solaris is a distant water planet, whose ocean seems to be an intelligent life form. There is a human space station orbiting it for scientific study, but the mission really hasn't gone very far, mainly because almost all the crew has had meltdowns or hallucinations. Troubled psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is being sent to Solaris to determine whether the mission should continue.
But when he arrives, he finds that the space station is falling apart, and his friend Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has committed suicide. The two remaining scientists, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), are strangely unwilling to talk to Kris -- and they seem to be hiding living creatures on the space station. When Kris' wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) -- who committed suicide years ago -- appears, he begins to realize what Solaris truly is.
Technically speaking, "Solaris" is a science fiction movie. After all, everything that happens centers on an intelligent water-planet, an alien intelligence that can only communicate through creating replicas so perfect that they don't know they aren't human. It's a hauntingly strange, wondrous kind of sci-fi, imagining worlds and creatures that are so ALIEN that we can barely comprehend them.
But in this movie, the sci-fi elements are there to serve the human ones. This is a heartrending, exquisite story of loss and grief, explored through Kris' struggle to deal with a simulacrum of his beloved dead wife and his guilt over her. Tarkovsky's direction is absolutely brilliant, slow and dreamlike, full of mist and pale light, metal walls and lush landscapes -- and it makes the shocking moments all the more shocking because they are so soft and slow.
Reportedly Banionis didn't really "get" his role until he saw the finished movie, but he does give a quietly powerful performance as a man with a wife he drove to suicide and a father he's still got issues with. And Bondarchuk is powerfully tragic as a Solaris-generated simulacrum who cannot understand what she is, and whose knowledge may destroy her.
And in a weird way, Solaris itself is a character -- while it never speaks and is a formless creature beyond our knowledge, it seems curious. And when it interacts with Kris, it gives him the chance to work through his issues and be at peace, and in turn the planet can become something new and glorious.
"Solaris" is a luminous, haunting movie that uses science fiction to tell a very human story -- and Tarkovsky's exquisite direction makes this one of the best movies of the genre. An absolute must-see.
SOLYARIS gets compaired to 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY all the time. About the only thing they DO have in common, is the idea that space travel occurs in the MIND, as well as the body. The other unity between the two SCIFI masterpieces, are that space travel seems to break apart the psyche of the traveler, who contacts in ANY way alien intelligence. Kubricks 2001 doesnt make as many philosophical discriptions during the film, as SOLARIS does. For me, this is a minor flaw in SOLARIS. Tarkovsky's film ends with this musing, about mankinds purpose, the existence of deity, what it means to be "human", and if it IS possible to return to Earth, after experiencing something as life altering as direct contact with Alien intelligence. Kubrick's film accomplishes the same thing, but silently, more effectively. For the most part, Tarkovsky lets his imagery move the poetic underpining of his films, but he loves to stick in little bits about how mankind is doomed by his greed, and neurotic need to have his (materialistic) dreams all realized. Most people find the beginning of SOLYARIS, at the Dacha, a bit boring, (just like 2001's MONKEY scenes) it helps to set the visual pace of the film, the visual poetry. The long shots of the pond in the beginning of SOLARIS, actually makes sense, if you see how it connects to the end of the film, when the POND becomes just another creation of SOLARIS, itself a larger planetary ocean, set in the ocean of the universe.
Tarkovsky is a poet with imagery, as his father was a poet with words. The one element that always makes me realize the depth of Tarkovsky's work, is the disunity that the critics, and the audience, have over WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Especially in "space ship" type SCIFI, the meaning tends to be very cut and polished. Its only with Kubrick's 2001, made in 1966, that ambiguity seems to enter the genre. It left the genre 6 years later, when Tarkovsky made SOLARIS. Both films are about aliens exploring the human mind, reflecting the "psychedelic" travels of those mind explorers during the 1960s and 70s who used LSD for the same purpose. Therefore, a film where PURE MINDSTUFF, invisible pure being, is one of the central characters, just doesnt seem to want to connect with people today. SOLYARIS, like the MONOLITH, represents humanity's possibilities, their limits, and the concept that REALITY is so much MORE than our preception of REALITY. We make our own realities, and that IS SPACE TRAVEL, of the purest type. This might be why The "HOLLYWOOD" Solaris is more easily digestable. It has no bizarre, circular ending, no low budget sets that need the viewer to invest their own imagination, to make the various roundish rooms on the first SOLARIS turn into a circular space station. The USSR SOLARIS doesnt give you time to consider what might be WRONG with the set logically. Instead, your mind is occupied with intellectual, and emotional concerns. SOLARIS Hollywood style, has it all in place, logical, tight, every hole filled in with the characters, the scenery, and even the CONCEPT of alien intelligence. When ambiguity is removed for rationist reasons, the poetry is removed as well.
The same people that HATE Kubricks 2001, will NOT enjoy the USSR version of SOLARIS. If you dont like to ruminate over the films meaning, by having "breathing space" in the plot, then you wont like the USSR SOLARIS. This is how Tarkovsky makes films. His films use SPACE, for instnace a film shot where NOTHING is happening, or at most, water moves, to allow the viewer to sense a journey, either thru distance, or thru time. (Not unlike the long sections of lights, after Dave enters the Jupiter monolith, and moves thru space and time, for 10 minutes of light shows, that has no plot device, other than MIND TRAVEL is SPACE TRAVEL.) Without all the costly, realistic sets, costumes, etc, its easy to forget that SOLARIS even takes place at a distant planet. Everything looks so EARTHLY, that you forget about the SCIFI theme, and just accept that this altered reality that the people on the SOLARIS Space station experience, is as real as the earthly reality. You accept the delusion, that Chris accepts. Kubrick's 2001 never allows you to forget for a MOMENT, when his film is happening in space, which is the real, and the illusions of the MONOLITH. Maybe that difference is the REAL reason that SOLARIS makes us uncomfortable. Its because it makes us question the very substance of our EARTHLY perception of reality, by the end of the film.
In both films, the main characters become transformed, and overtaken, by the alien intelligence. Both films are a total trip, a trip to the far reaches of the mind. Same destination, different roads. The difference between the two films, is like the difference between cosmonauts and astronauts. In the late 60s and early 70s, that difference was so much greater than it is today. The HOLLYWOOD "SOLARIS", and "2010 The year we make contact", shows how our society today wants it ALL to have a tight, logical ending. No ambiguity, no inner space travel, its all been given over to large budget sets, and big name starts. For the same reason ASTRONAUTS will probibly never land on the moon again, we will never see COSMONAUTS go to the USSR SOLARIS, or ASTRONAUTS enter another monolith. The great age of imagination and exploring inner realities, has been given over to the external, concise reality of COMPUTER GRAPHICS, which give us anything our imagination could EVER produce. (but a machine can do better, or so we believe.) When the imagination becomes superfluous, and ambiguity becomes boring, then its just POPCORN FILMS from here to the edge of the universe.
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