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
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
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.
Years ago a UFO landedin a secluded portion of Russia
for a sort of interstellar roadside picnic, and left 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
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