I say this is the masterpiece of Russia’s late, legendary Andrei Tarkovsky. STALKER isn’t an easy film by any means, yet its atmosphere of otherworldly strangeness and sheer cinematic brilliance make for an unforgettable trip through one of the cinema’s most vivid and unsettling dreamscapes.
STALKER (1979) was one of two science fiction themed films made by Andrei Tarkovsky, the other being 1972’s SOLARIS. SOLARIS and STALKER are interesting not only for their speculative themes, but also for integrating elements of an even more maligned genre: horror. For that reason STALKER has been unfairly maligned by many Tarkovsky buffs (one critical survey blithely dismissed it and SOLARIS as, simply, “lesser films”), yet it’s among the most enduring and influential of all his films.
STALKER’S direct influence can be seen in everything from Konstantin Lopushansky’s LETTERS FROM A DEAD MAN (and no surprise, as Lopushansky was a production assistant on STALKER), Lars von Trier’s THE ELEMENT OF CRIME, Yuri Ilyenko’s SWAN LAKE: THE ZONE (the second part of whose title is an apparent homage to the present film) and Alexander Sokurov’s DAYS OF ECIPSE.
Adapted from the novel ROADSIDE PICNIC by Boris and Arkadi Strugatsky (whose work also inspired the aforementioned LETTERS FROM A DEAD MAN and DAYS OF ECLIPSE), STALKER was actually filmed twice. By this I mean the footage from Tarkovsky’s initial 1977 shoot was ruined in a laboratory accident, meaning the entire film had to be lensed again with a different cinematographer (Aleksandr Knyazhinsky, replacing Georgi Rerberg)—and, according to sources close to the production, virtually everything about the reshot version was different from the initial one.
In the world of STALKER a UFO lands in a secluded portion of Russia for a sort of interstellar roadside picnic, and leaves behind a haunted region known as The Zone. Strangeness reigns in The Zone, wherein it seems reality itself has been irretrievably warped. The Zone also contains a room inside a crumbling old house where one is granted the wish he or she most ardently desires. For this and other reasons Russian authorities have surrounded The Zone with barbed wire and machine gun equipped soldiers to keep the populace out. However, daredevils known as Stalkers have made it their job to illegally lead people through The Zone to the magic room.
We meet one such Stalker, a wretched man who lives on the outskirts of The Zone with his fed-up wife and mutant daughter. This Stalker’s latest trip into The Zone includes two disaffected intellectuals: an alcoholic writer known, appropriately enough, as Writer, and a disaffected professor known as Professor.
Following near-death at the hands of The Zone’s outer guards, the Stalker, Writer and Professor enter The Zone. Their journey begins nearly at the front steps of the house they’re in search of, but the properties of The Zone make it so they have to go around the abode in a circle. They end up entering the structure by crawling through a tunnel that’s dry one moment and filled with rushing water the next, and then traversing an underground pipe known as the “Meat Grinder” because of the mental toll it takes on those who enter. Throughout, the Stalker and his companions are beset by eerie dreams and hallucinations brought on by The Zone. Eventually they reach the wishing room, where the Professor unveils his true reason for embarking on the journey: a bomb with which he plans to blow the room sky high!
As one who’s familiar with Andrei Tarkovsky’s seven features, I feel he was never more inspired than with STALKER. Tarkovsky himself claimed it “turned out the best of all my films.” It is arguably the apotheosis of the dreamlike aura Tarkovsky cultivated in his other films, with many of his signature images—flowing water, glowing embers, a spectral dog–given their most striking expression in STALKER. Tarkovsky’s usual somnambulant pacing and ultra-labored staging also work to his advantage here, as the setting is a spectral region where one’s every step must be measured and cautious.
Tarkovsky acted as his own art director, and created an otherworldly universe as vivid and immediate as those of BLADE RUNNER or AVATAR—and with a fraction of the resources of those films. STALKER should be required viewing for cash-strapped fantasy filmmakers, as it demonstrates better than nearly any other film the virtues of simplicity in crafting an otherworldly environ. The scenery is limited in scope, with crooked telephone poles, moss-covered tanks and a flooded ballroom being the most elaborate special effects, yet Tarkovsky succeeds in creating an aura of unsurpassed strangeness where dream and reality are indistinguishable.
Shortcomings? Yes, STALKER has a few. The Meat Grinder sequence, for starters, doesn’t work. Tarkovsky’s idea was apparently to convey the mental torment experienced by the protagonists entirely through the abrasive emanations of their footsteps as they walk through the tunnel (which sound like cleats scraping on broken glass). An interesting idea, but it falls flat.
I’m also none too thrilled about the climax, in which Stalker and his charges reach the magic room only to halt outside and spend the remainder of their journey engaged in dull philosophical musings (also a shortcoming of SOLARIS). Tarkovsky was no philosopher, which is quite evident here.
Yet STALKER’S imagery and overall atmosphere are so extraordinary it qualifies as a masterpiece, flawed though it may be. The film is impossible not to admire, and even more difficult to forget.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Producer: Aleksandra Demidova
Screenplay: Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky
(Based on the novel ROADSIDE PICNIC by Boris and Arkadi Strugatsky)
Cinematography: Aleksandr Knyazhinsky
Editing: Lyudmila Feiginova
Cast: Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Alisa Frejndlikh, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Natasha Abramova, Faime Jurno, Ye. Kostin, R. Rendi