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Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky made a leap when he followed his classic film about a medieval icon painter, Andrei Rublev (1969), with a captivating look at mysteries aboard a futuristic space station titled Solaris (1972). But just as Andrei Rublev was no ordinary historical drama, Solaris is distinctively different from most science fiction films with their emphasis on special effects and whiz bang action. Instead, its focus on introspective characters and the use of unconventional techniques to tell its story give it an edge over other art films of the period. Desson Howe of The Washington Post wrote: "the third feature in Tarkovsky's brief, shining career will deliver you from the mundane to the sublime...His pictures, and his sounds....tell more than just the immediate story; they rejuvenate the mind." Other renown critics also praised Solaris like Jonathan Rosenbaum who said, "Tarkovsky's eerie mystic parable is given substance by the filmmaker's boldly original grasp of film language and the remarkable performances by all the principals."
Like many things about Solaris the plot might seem deceptively familiar when summarized. Solaris is a distant planet, composed mostly of water, which is circled by a space station. When one of the three scientists on the station dies mysteriously, investigator Kris is sent from Earth to find out what happened. He discovers that the station is poorly maintained and the two scientists left aboard are uncommunicative. The situation grows stranger still when Kris's ex-wife, who's been dead for seven years, begins to appear before him.
When Tarkovsky finished Andrei Rublev he probably didn't know it would take five years to get it released, a situation that interrupted his development of future film projects. Still, Tarkovsky pitched an idea to Mosfilm, the Soviet film bureau, for an autobiographical film based on his mother and his own childhood. It was rejected though it later became the basis for his film The Mirror (1975). So instead Tarkovsky turned to the idea of a science fiction film, a genre in some favor at the time. He chose a 1961 novel by the noted Polish writer Stanislaw Lem called Solaris which had previously frustrated a French filmmaker's attempts to get the rights. Translated into about 30 languages, the novel is a modern classic. Tarkovsky pitched the idea in late 1968 and working with Fridrikh Gorenshtein finished the first draft of the script by June 1969. That's when he ran into some trouble; Lem objected to the inclusion of a love triangle and some other changes that he felt reduced the film to a mere soap opera. Many of the objections were given consideration and, in the end, Tarkovsky adhered more closely to Lem's novel; the major changes in the finished film are the addition of Earth scenes (the novel takes place entirely aboard the space station) and the removal of extraneous scientific detail which held little interest for most audiences.
Sometime before actual filming began Tarkovsky saw 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but was unimpressed by Kubrick's fascination with technology at the expense of human concerns. One result is that Tarkovsky and his co-workers decided to put more emphasis on the daily life and cluttered environment of the space station workers.
By spring 1970, Solaris was ready for casting and, at one point, Tarkovsky considered Bibi Andersson (Persona, 1966) for a key role. That never happened but Tarkovsky did bring back his Andrei Rublev, Anatoli Solonitsyn, who would also appear in the director's later Stalker (1979) and The Mirror. For the wife's part he used Natalya Bondarchuk, daughter of noted director Sergei Bondarchuk (War and Peace, 1968). Dr. Snauth was played by Juri Jarvet, noted for the title role in 1969's King Lear (and recently in the cult film Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998). According to some reports, Tarkovsky even toyed with the idea of using his real-life wife in one role.
Unfortunately, prior to filming, Tarkovsky saw his budget progressively cut until it was about half of what was originally planned. Nevertheless, he started shooting in March 1971 and had the entire film ready for an official screening by the end of the year. Within a month Mosfilm gave Tarkovsky a list of 35 requested changes, some reflecting political policy (removal of religious references) and others more personal (such as fewer sexual references). Tarkovsky made a few minor changes but left most of the film untouched. (He had intentionally shot additional footage for certain scenes in anticipation of the requested cuts by Russian authorities.) Surprisingly Solaris was given official approval and finally released at Cannes in 1972 where it won the Grand Prize of the Jury and the FIPRESCI Award. Like many of Tarkovsky's films, it fared much worse in the US where half an hour was cut before release. TCM, however, will be showing the restored, uncut version. It has been reported that Steven Soderbergh is currently working on a remake of Solaris with James Cameron as producer (he owns the rights) but no production date has been announced yet.
Producer: Viacheslav Tarasov
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay: Fridrikh Gorenshtein, Andrei Tarkovsky, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem
Art Direction: Mikhail Romadin
Cinematography: Vadim Yusov
Costume Design: Yelena Fomina (listed as Nelli Fomina)
Film Editing: Lyuba Fejginova
Original Music: Eduard Artemyev
Principal Cast: Natalya Bondarchuk (Harey), Juri Jarvet (Snauth), Donatas Banionis (Kris), Anatoli Solonitsyn (Sartorius), Vladislav Dvorzhetsky (Burton).
BW & C-165m.
by Lang Thompson