Russian film (1979). Mosfilm. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Production design Tarkovsky. Written by Arkady and Boris Strugatski, based on their Roadside Picnic (1972; trans 1977). Cast includes Nikolai Grinko, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky and Anatoli Solonitsyn. 161 minutes. Black and white and colour.
The original novel tells of a mysterious Zone in Canada where enigmatic artefacts can be found, left there like picnic litter by aliens. Tarkovsky's somewhat inaccessible film, set in a desolate, unnamed country which is probably to be read as an allegorical Russia, de-emphasizes the sf elements. In place of the alien artefacts is the Room, where (maybe) one's most secret wish will be granted. To reach the Room, one must enter the Zone (photographed in muted colour, as opposed to the bleak black-and-white opening sequence set in an industrial wasteland) – perhaps a Bermuda Triangle, perhaps an ironic gift from a probably nonexistent God – which is a little like the alien killer-maze in Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon (1960): it is a mixture of dereliction and greenery, waterlogged, a maze of ever-changing lethal traps, to be traversed only in a kind of drunkard's walk, an arbitrary zigzag. The Stalker, the shaven-headed smuggler-saint whose wretched life flares up only within the Zone, which he loves, is guide to the Writer and the Professor, the former seeking genius, the latter secretly planning to bomb the Room.
Stalker is agonizingly static, punctuated by abstract philosophical conversations with long pauses, and yet for some viewers it has an almost unequalled hypnotic intensity. This is partly due to Tarkovsky's lingering artist's eye, catching the beauty of ugliness as, for example, the camera pans endlessly across a shallow lake in the Zone whose floor is kitchen tiles, passing indifferently across coins, syringes, icons, calendars, a gun, all looming through the weed. The Room is reached, but left unentered and unbombed. Afterwards, at the Stalker's home, we witness his legless daughter (the children of stalkers being often mutated) push a glass slowly across a table by telekinesis while her exhausted father sleeps, the only unambiguous miracle of the film. Stalker is a meditation on faith and cynicism, certainly pretentious, memorable for some, and perhaps the grimmest metaphor for Russia produced by a Russian in our generation. [PN]
see also: Labyrinths; SF Music; Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl.
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