Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Solaris — The Criterion Collection

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Solaris (1972) — The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

The Film
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris doesn’t shy away from paradox. It is both intensely cerebral and mysteriously spiritual; unsentimental and yet pervaded with emotion. At nearly three hours long, the film might appear to be a kind of sci-fi epic, but Solaris is more interested in human consciousness than the intricacies of the future-world in which it takes place.

Tarkovksy’s languid pacing makes for a film that you kind of just sink into. One can attempt to intellectually process everything on screen (and that approach will keep you busy enough), but I find it’s more satisfying to let the images wash over you, like the roiling ocean at the center of the film’s mystery.

In a lengthy prologue, the film introduces us to Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist preparing to be sent into space the next day. Kelvin spends these final moments on Earth among the trees and water that surround his house, and later, briefing for his mission by watching footage from a conference discussing the project’s troubles. He’s to be sent to the space station near the planet Solaris, where inhabitants have been experiencing unexplainable phenomena.

When he arrives, he discovers that one of the three cosmonauts on board the station has committed suicide and the two others (Jüri Järvet, Anatoli Solonitsyn) are behaving erratically. It is not long before Kelvin falls under the same bewitchment, as the figure of his dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), appears to him repeatedly. The hazy explanation the other scientists offer is that the ocean of the planet Solaris has the ability to mine conscious and unconscious thoughts and produce perfect facsimiles.

Kelvin experiences the spectrum of emotions toward the ghost, as profound waves of latent grief seem to flow over him. Tarkovsky uses the complicated relationship Kelvin develops with Hari to explore the nature of love and loss, but also the very fiber of humanity. Inside the sterile, intellectual world of space, there are experiences unexplained by science.

Solaris is often considered one of Tarkovsky’s more accessible works, but the semi-backhanded nature of that label doesn’t adequately convey the thematic richness or the variety of interpretive paths one can take. On a plot level, the film is straightforward and relatively easy to follow, but the meditative nature of Solaris ensures that everyone is going to take away something different, depending on what they brought to the viewing experience.

Tarkovsky’s lovely long takes and poetic imagery (a shot where the station temporarily undergoes weightlessness is absolutely breathtaking, and it’s hardly the only shot that’s such) are well represented here. The marrying of seemingly opposite ideals make Solaris one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

The Blu-ray Disc
Solaris is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Immediately as the film began, I was taken aback by the richness of the greenery that opens the film, with the gently swaying reeds underwater looking incredibly vibrant. The transfer goes on to impress, although not quite at the same level throughout as the image can occasionally seem a little soft or poorly defined around the edges. But there was hardly a time when I felt like the image didn’t seem texturally film-like. Fine detail is apparent in the vast majority of the shots, with the film’s monochromatic sequences exhibiting an extra level of detail and sharpness. Scenes which were formerly black-and-white on Criterion’s original DVD release of the film have now been tinted blue to be in accordance with Tarkovsky’s intent. (A new DVD release of the film correcting these scenes is also now available.) Damage is very minimal, and by-and-large, the transfer represents an exceptional upgrade over the previous edition.

Audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural track that’s quite robust for its single channel, exhibiting clear and dynamic sound during the film’s several explosive moments. Dialogue sounds natural and clean, without a problematic tinny undertone. Pops, hiss, and crackle are unnoticeable.

Special Features
In terms of supplements, this disc is identical to the previous two-disc DVD edition, and it’s a solid, if a little dry, selection. Nine deleted and alternate scenes run about 25 minutes and mostly expand on existing scenes in the film. An alternate text opening is included among them. There are also four substantial interviews with members of cast and crew, all presented in Russian with subtitles. Interviews with Bondarchuk and cinematographer Vadim Yusov run past the 30 minutes mark each, while segments with art director Mikhail Romadin and composer Eduard Artemyev run closer to 20 minutes.

A short excerpt from a documentary on Stanislaw Lem, author of the novel the film is based on, explores briefly his dislike for the film, much of which stemmed from Tarkovsky’s valuing of Earth (and the human feelings associated with it) over the complexities of space. Lem reportedly didn’t like Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 crack at adapting his novel either.

An audio commentary from Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, author of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky, is included, along with a booklet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Lopate and an appreciation by Akira Kurosawa, who has a couple great anecdotes from during the film’s production.

The Bottom Line
With a sold visual upgrade (and the corrected scenes to go along with it) over Criterion’s original edition, this Solaris Blu-ray is an easy recommendation.

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