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Category:    Home > Reviews > Science Fiction > Existentialism > Solaris (Criterion 1972, Fox 2002)

Solaris (Criterion 1972 + Fox 2002 DVDs)


Picture: B/A-     Sound: C+/B+     Extras: A/B     Film: A-/B



PLEASE NOTE: The Criterion edition here was discontinued and replaced with a new print because one of the scenes turned out to have the wrong color, but we have covered the reissued version on Blu-ray at this link:





Now the original review…



Late in 2002 director Steven Soderbergh and producer/director James Cameron released the remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic Russian film Solaris (1972).  It is not vital to be familiar with the original film, but it does help in understanding some of the thematic elements, the simplistic nature of the film, its pace, certain musical cues, as well as the mood, tone, character, and overall emotion of the experience. 


There are certain liberties that were taken with this remake, but the best way to describe this 95-minute outing is a Cliff Notes version of a lengthy 3-hour epic excursion.  Both are well crafted and directed with precision and grace.  What is common for both these films though is their rhythm, which if you are not locked into immediately, you may as well stop.  There are very few climaxes or pulses within this film that take the energy level up a notch.  The whole ride is rather smooth.  It’s an experience that you do not realize until after the fact.


Soderbergh’s film quickly begins as Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) receives a message from crewmembers aboard the Solaris space station expressing their situation, which appears like a distress call.  The members have been experiencing strange phenomenon that no one can explain and they need Chris’ help.  The members do not give any detail other than they want to leave, but somehow cannot do so.  Chris is a psychologist who is quite isolated from the world as he deals with others problems on a day-to-day basis his compassion for others has become comatose. 

Chris immediately boards a ship headed towards the distressed crewmembers that are currently circling around a pool known as Solaris.  When Solaris was originally adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel in 1972, the film was deemed as the answer back to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out only four years prior.  There are certainly some thematic elements that resonate in both.  Indeed both films pride themselves in their simplicity and find complexity through so little.  The extraterrestrial life or phenomenon that has been creating these occurrences in both films seems to be calling mankind with its power in an attempt to contact man on some level.  In Solaris, we have crewmembers that are sucked into the powers of this force, which they cannot explain.  Somehow this force makes their dreams merge with their realities.  Of course in 2001: A Space Odyssey, mankind is contacted via black monolith, which in turn causes us to evolve and in time we attempt to contact space. 


Upon arrival, Chris finds that very strange things are happening.  People are missing or found dead.  Everyone on board seems fine with the situation as if nothing major was going on, but at the same time they are scared on another level.  Chris notices that everyone is acting very peculiar even though they physically seem intact.  While 2001: A Space Odyssey would comment on computers taking over man, Solaris would note that while we become more advanced in our ways to communicate we become more and more isolated.  This was certainly true in 1972, yet even truer in 2002.  Perhaps this is good validation for doing a remake.  Certainly to deliver a film like this to an American audience was a huge step considering the lack of sci-fi based films that enter the market successfully in Hollywood


Surely each and every one of us has remembered something from when we were younger only to grow up and find out that the way we remember it is not quite as good as it really is.  So the question at hand is if we remember something a certain way does it really matter to us if it really is that way or not.  To ourselves the way we create something inside our mind is much stronger than the way something might exist to others.  Chris Kelvin only remembers his wife for what happened to her as she passed away years back.  Her death is never fully explained, but we understand that in some ways Chris blames himself.  He replays her death over and over again.  While aboard the space station his dead wife comes to him on the ship as real as ever.  She exists there in reality, which at first is like Heaven for Chris being with his departed wife once again.  Yet, can he live with her once again if she is only comprised of the ways in which he remembers her?  Can he remember her for more than what happened?  Can he forget the tragedy and relive the romance? 


Fox has issued Solaris (2002) in a very pleasing DVD with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which has been anamorphically enhanced.  Both the 1972 and the 2002 film were shot in scope the original being in Sovscope, while the remake was shot in Panavision.  Despite being shot with a wide-open framework both films manage to create a very intimate close-up environment from which the characters respond in.  Soderbergh chose to do all the cinematography and editing for this film trying to emulate the vibe of the original with its icy tones and dramatic pacing.  Only a director like this would be able to take a literate stance on a film such as this rather than the other direction, which the producer James Cameron may have had with more action, guns, violence, and that sort.  What is important about the look and the feel of this film is that the off-screen action is just as important as the on-screen action.  What lies beyond the frame is a mystery, which is unknown to us as it is unknown to the characters.  We know about as much as the characters on board and experience just as they do.  Where the original film benefits though is that it explores the characters with a steady amount of work and bookends the film rather differently. 


The Criterion Collection has issued a special 2-Disc version of the Tarkovsky’s Solaris.  The film is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio preserving its original framing, which is a high-definition transfer taken from a low-contrast print, made from the original camera negative.  The picture quality is pleasing throughout with nice detail and definition.  The colors are what come through the best preserving the very subdued look of the film, which would be a common approach in the 70’s in all of filmmaking.  Directors and cameramen would turn away from some of the more vibrant color palettes typical of the Technicolor productions, which had been so common since the use of color films. 


From the opening of the 1972 Solaris, we spend a few minutes on Earth before our departure in a natural setting.  We see water, plants, and life.  This montage of scenes helps us identify with being here on Earth (as in ‘home’) and being familiar with everything before we leave with Kris (or Chris) towards the space station Solaris.  However, at the end of the film a different sense of the word ‘home’ is implied.  What is home really?  A place you live, a place you feel comfortable, or just a place that harbors dreams?  In the remake we never really gain the same sense of the homeward experience that our main character goes through.  This element has been taken out as we quickly leave Earth and head for Solaris.  The original also spends more time with the reflections of certain characters and acts more like a study than a film at times.  These moments can become tedious to get through, whereas the remake brushes through without hesitation, yet some say this film is boring.  Obviously a film like this takes patience.  Notice how films similar to this have failed miserably such as Barry Levinson’s 1998 film Sphere


From a sound perspective Solaris’ (2002) atmosphere is beautifully captured on this DVD in Dolby Digital 5.1.  Soderbergh chose to use this film with very slight dashes of music here and there and what is impressive is that the soundstage can become involved without the need for a lot of action.  This once again proves that dramas can show off sound design just as much as any action film.  For further proof, check out the DVD’s for The Red Violin, Meet Joe Black: Ultimate Edition, or K-Pax.  The only disappointing factor with this soundtrack is the absent DTS 5.1 option, which a film like this would have benefited greatly.  Considering that there are many moments of low grumbling and deeper bass involvement the DTS would have allowed the mix to contain a smoother more refined low-end presence.  Instead the Dolby only mix shortchanges us by giving a rather compressed channel of sound.


Criterion created a 24-bit remastered soundtrack for Tarkovsky’s Solaris presenting the film is a standard 1.0 mono, which does the film little justice.  The opening scene alone demonstrates the limitations as we hear Bach’s "Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" trying to penetrate through the single channel.  A 5.1 remix would have been tedious for this film, yet the results would have allowed the atmosphere to engulf the viewer and aid in bring the viewer into this film, which is vital since it’s a strong character study with a science fiction vein.  Notice Tarkovsky also chose classical music for his space film similar to Kubrick.  Using this type of music is the complete backwards direction from what might be the norm considering most sci-fi pieces up until this time were trying to use cheesy sound FX, echoing soundtracks, and other bizarre arrangements to make the music sound alien-like. 


The Criterion Edition of Solaris contains a commentary track provided by Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, who are co-authors of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue.  Both these individuals comment to great length about the importance of certain elements within the film, the visual language, as well as certain production aspects.  This is a very scholarly-based commentary track recommended for only those familiar with this film and are interested more so in Tarkovsky’s contributions to cinema.  The 2-Disc set also included nine deleted scenes for the film as well as some alterative takes.  There are also very interesting interviews with lead actress Natalya Bondarchuk, cinematographer Vadim Yusov, art director Mikhail Romadin, and composer Eduard Artemyev.  As if these extras weren’t enough there is also an excerpt with author Stanislaw Lem about his Solaris and there are two essays provided in the booklet, one by Akira Kurosawa and the other by Phillip Lopate. 


Fox’s Solaris does not contain quite as many extras nor are they as intellectual, but does include a commentary track with Soderbergh and James Cameron, in which they discuss their approach on the film.  It is interesting to hear how they became involved and what ideas they both had for the film.  Soderbergh addresses more of the ‘on set’ topics of the film, while Cameron deals more with the producer side of it, but does mention at time why he liked Soderbergh’s approach and basically just let him go with the project how he felt necessary.  The DVD also contains an HBO “Making Of”, which is nothing special at all, but acts more like a large commercial for the film.  There is a Featurette on the DVD as well, which seems like more fluff and the original screenplay is also provided.  True fans of the original would have certainly liked to have seen and heard more mentioned about the differences within both versions.  A compare/contrast would have worked.  Soderbergh commenting more on the inspirations of the original or why he included or excluded certain elements would have been beneficial as well.


While both versions of Solaris can exist on their own the perfect combination is to become knowledgeable on both.  The original is given proper DVD treatment with enough information to aid the viewer in getting more from the experience.  By doing so, perhaps the remake might make more sense.  While both films contain a similar set-up and delivery the endings are in some regards poles apart.  Do not expect to find much mentioned about the original film if you only get the remake because there is little mention about the original as if it did not even exist.  Even on the commentary track there is little reference, which is insane considering many of the shots are identical as well as various music and editing cues, character developments, and of course the story.  For those who feel that reading subtitles for the epic 3-hour Tarkovsky version is just too much, than the remake will do nicely in presenting a shortened version despite have a few setbacks in comparison to the original.



-   Nate Goss


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