Though Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, is often regarded as a masterpiece of science fiction cinema, western audiences may be more familiar with the George Clooney remake from 2002. This new Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection is a good opportunity to feast your eyes on the original.
Cosmonaut and psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris to investigate strange transmissions coming from its three remaining crew. When he gets there, he finds one crew member has killed himself, and the other two are... well, they insist that, however it looks, they’re not going mad, and that, in fact, some alien intelligence in the planet’s ocean really is making simulacra of their memories appear.
This strange phenomenon soon hits Kelvin hard, as he’s visited by a being who appears to be his wife Hari – who died ten years ago. Terrified, he tricks her into a space capsule and launches her out into space. But then, that evening, she comes back. This time, Kelvin allows ‘Hari’ into his life, and they’re soon inseparable.
At once an epic and a very insular movie, a combination that much sci-fi aspires to but falls short of, Solaris cuts between sweeping shots of the mysterious planet and deep psychological exploration of how these ‘guests’ affect the crew. It’s a film that’s been discussed at length with regards to what it has to say about faith and memory, but which at heart seems to be about the need for human connection. Humanity isn’t ready to explore new worlds, says one of the crew, because we’re more interested in looking at ourselves, a statement reflected in Kelvin’s growing love for the being as if she is really Hari and in the themes in which Tarkovsky seems interested.
At times, it’s a captivatingly beautiful film, with this thought-provoking drama taking place against the backdrop of an impressive but worn-down space station, which seems to fall apart alongside the protagonist’s mind – proof that the dilapidated style of sci-fi didn’t originate with Star Wars five years later, as is often claimed. At other times, the movie’s lingering nature can irritate; one particular shot of a car travelling down a road before we’ve even gone to space lasts uncomfortably long.
Nevertheless, the whole film looks stunning in this new restoration, Criterion having done an excellent job transferring the movie to Blu-ray. The special features – an audio essay from Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, deleted scenes, some interviews, an excerpt from a Stanislaw Lem documentary, and a booklet with essays from Phillip Lopate and Akira Kurosawa – are interesting but ultimately too slight to make this a real collector’s must-have.
SOLARIS (1972) / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: ANDREI TARKOVSKY / SCREENPLAY: ANDREI TARKOVSKY, FRIDRIKH GORENSHTEYN / STARRING: DONATOS BANIONIS, JÜRI JÄRVET, NATALYA BONDARCHUK, ANATOLIY SOLONITSYN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW