Andrei Tarkovsky, director of Stalker, wasn’t exactly what you’d call a genre author, though he did try his hand at a science fiction movie twice, and both times the results were classic, first being Solaris and second the movie I’m about to review now.
Review by SAndman
August 2, 2010
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
novel and screenplay: Arkadi Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
Aleksandr Kaidanovsky as Stalker
Anatoli Solonitsyn as Writer
Nikolai Grinko as Professor
Alisa Frejndlikh as Stalker’s Wife
Stalker: The Zone may even seem capricious. But it is what we’ve made it with our condition. It happened that people had to stop halfway and go back. Some of them even died on the very threshold of the room. But everything that’s going on here depends not on the Zone, but on us.
Stalker is based on a work of fiction, Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers, which other than the topic and the main character has very little in common with Tarkovsky’s movie.
The director took the basic plot and the character and turned them inside out – the end product is a uniquely brooding movie, and a brilliant one at that, which tackles the topic of the first encounter.
However, given its stylistic richness and ambiguous plot you can, just as any great work of art, view it as a thousand different things: a religious parable, case study of schizophrenia, metaphor for the human condition.
And I must urge you, do not get discouraged by the slow pace and the lack of the so-called physical action. The movie is as tense and as they come, it’s just that Tarkovsky looked for tension in unexpected places.
First off, I feel a little clarification is due here. The title of the movie has absolutely nothing to do with sexual harassment. It comes from a different meaning of the verb “to stalk”, that is to move in a secretive or threatening way.
The plot is set in an indefinite time period and country. Twenty years ago what at first looked a meteorite fell and destroyed an area of land, razing the nearby human settlements and changing the landscape forever.
Very soon it became clear that the destruction was not caused by a meteorite but aliens. The army was sent in, but the troops never returned. The police cordoned off the area and declared it off-limits and set up watchtowers and barbwire fences. People began to call the place the Zone.
Soon rumors spread of a few who ventured past the police checkpoints into the Zone and got back with stories of mysterious goings-on inside the Zone, deadly traps, temporal and spatial distortions, and other phenomena which defy rational explanation.
They also told of a place inside the Zone, a room where man’s innermost desires come to life. A new profession emerged, guides who can take people into the Zone, and on to the Room, and get them back safely. They were called stalkers.
At the beginning of the movie, we meet the main character, the stalker of the title, whose real name we never learn and of whom we generally know very little except that he got arrested after the last trip to the Zone and was sentenced to five years in prison.
He lives in abject poverty with a wife, who doesn’t approve of his occupation, and a daughter, who was born with birth defects and walks with the help of crutches – her condition is likely due to the mutagen effect of the Zone.
Despite his wife’s emotional protests, the stalker takes on a new job. His two customers are the Writer, argumentative and cynical, who enters the Zone because he is afraid his inspiration may be failing, and the Professor, a taciturn scientist, who, when pressed by the Writer to reveal his motive for venturing into the Zone, says unconvincingly that he wants to win a Nobel Prize.
In a daring raid, the trio sneaks past the police guards and break into the Zone. At that moment the movie changes visually from monochrome sepia tones to color.
Also, all the physical actions shrink to what is basically negotiating one’s way through a landscape marred by the recent destruction: burned cars, decayed houses, and tunnels filled with sewage water, industrial debris strewn all over the place, the odd syringe or yellowed pages of books, filth, and weed.
On one level these artifacts are real obstacles that the characters have to skirt around to get to their goal. However, on a symbolic level, the ravaged landscape and the rotting man-made objects are visual representations of the characters’ mental states.
Recurrent images of defunct technology, as well as the motifs of flickering light, muddy water, objects submerged in the muddy water, ash blown by the wind, reinforce the impression of futility and decay.
Another peculiar thing in the movie is that very quickly we notice that though the guide seems dead serious about his instructions, and insists his customers follow them to the letter, none of his rules seem to make any sense.
Furthermore, his companions occasionally break those rules, intentionally or not, and nothing happens. No repercussions, no punishment from the Zone. At times it even makes you suspect the stalker’s sanity, and you wonder whether the Writer and the Professor have been duped by a mentally unstable person.
The director’s signature long takes – there are about 140 takes in this 160-odd minute long movie – on average last up to one minute per shot with some shots running up to even four minutes and more.
And though I often hear people complain that Tarkovsky’s movies are slow and too long, personally I never found this to be true. As Stalker or any movie by the author goes, slowly does not necessarily mean boring or void of tension.
Every shot is well-thought-out and elaborately crafted with a great feel for mood and drama. Oftentimes you have to be quite attentive to pick up on minute changes in the environment signaling queer little peculiarities of the altered physical laws inside the Zone.
The sound design in the movie is richly textured and features a strangely evocative score and an elaborate fusion of natural and artificial sounds, which works to great effect in creating an ambiance in which lines between the world of nature and the one created by an alien presence are blurred and indistinguishable.
However, what soon becomes obvious is a disconnect between sounds and visuals in the movie. For instance, you occasionally hear the cries of animals though you never see them; or there is a repeated sound of dripping water, which at times feels exaggerated, or is often heard in the background even though there is no visible source of the sound.
Or sometimes, it becomes apparent that the sounds and the visuals are not in sync – for example, while the camera slowly pans to the sight of a waterfall, you suddenly hear the sound of the falling water. The impression is that the time inside the Zone is not the same as the time in the outside world.
Tarkovsky also often used quotations from Russian writers, classical works of literature, and the Bible in his movies. Stalker is no exception. That may be a setback for all of us non-native speakers. Just be sure you get a copy with fairly decent subtitles or you may find yourself puzzling over lines that do not make any sense.
Another one of Tarkovsky’s trademarks which features in Stalker is the characters who are all desperately engaged in a search of meaning, meaning of their lives, meaning of the world they inhabit.
In a sense, the journey into the heart of the Zone highlights – though I am not sure Tarkovsky, who often expressed his dislike for movies with a punchline or message, would approve of that term – the characters’ self-quest.
And lastly, those lucky, or chosen, depending on the way you look at it, few who pass the unforgiving “Meat-grinder” and reach the end of the journey, and the fulfillment of their innermost desires, they must face the final challenge.