Film Review: Stalker (1979)

A while back I reviewed Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic science fiction film Solaris. However, of the various films in Tarkovsky’s filmography, while Solaris was and is extremely well regarded, it’s a film that hasn’t built quite the same following behind it as Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker. While Solaris got a highly regarded remake approaching 30 years later from director Steven Soderbergh, Stalker has gotten a series of games that draws more, visually, from the film than from the novel that inspired it.

Stalker effectively follows three characters, the titular Stalker, and his two charges, known only as Professor and Writer, as they travel into The Zone – a geographical area where weird stuff has started happening after a meteor landed. Inside the zone is The Room – where whoever enters will receive their heart’s desire. As they travel through The Zone, the three talk about their personal philosophies, and why they chose to travel to the Zone.

To be frank, in the various axis of Science Fiction that I brought up in my review of Solaris, this is a film that uses Science Fiction purely for set dressing. This could just as easily be a film about two people accompanying a lay-priest through a hazardous journey to reach a shrine that has a holy relic that is said can work miracles. This is especially case when it comes to the subject matter of the film.

With Solaris, both with the source material, and with the interpretation of the book’s themes by Gorenshteyn and Tartakovsky, they made the film about interpersonal connections, both among humans and the potential between the human and the inhuman.

Stalker, on the other hand, is about faith and belief. The Stalker is a true believer. He knows what The Zone can do. He’s traveled this route many times before, and he understands. He has internalized his belief in the Zone’s power, and the faith in what it can do. It’s a part of him, possibly not only in terms of his identity.

On the other hand, the Writer and the Professor are more pragmatic. The Professor respects the Stalkers judgement and with one exception, respects his instructions. The Professor breaks from the Stalker’s instructions only when he realizes that he has forgotten his rucksack and must return to get it (as the contents of his bag also related to his Desire). Ultimately, when the trio reaches The Room, the Professor reveals that it his intent to destroy the room, and possibly the Zone itself, with a portable atomic bomb that he’s snuck into the Zone – as he believes that The Room’s power is too dangerous to be trusted by people, that people are not worthy of its power – that the unholy cannot be trusted with the holy.

By contrast, the Writer is a complete skeptic. He frequently scoffs at the rules put forward by the Stalker, chafes at his instructions, and when he encounters potential peril, he turns on the Stalker. Meanwhile, while talking about his own career as a writer, he frequently puts blame for his lack of success on others – that Editors, Critics, and Publishers don’t properly understand his work. He complains about their appetites – not only material appetites, but appetites for reading, cloud their mind to his brilliance. Only briefly does he admit any personal failing – claiming that he’s lost inspiration – before dismissing his earlier remarks later. He fits perfectly into the archetype of the creator who attacks any and all critics of their work, taking the view that if you don’t like their work, then you don’t understand their work.

There’s also the character of the Stalker’s daughter, “Monkey” – who was born without the use of her legs, due to the Stalker’s trips in and out of the Zone. In the film, scenes shot outside the zone are filmed in a sepia monochrome, while scenes within the zone are in color, much like with The Wizard of Oz. The exception is scenes from the implied point of view of Monkey, which are always in color – and the end of the film reveals that she has some telekinetic abilities, implying that there is a little of the Zone within her.

I’ve had to think a lot about what makes this film something that would be science fiction – why the earlier narrative framework I suggested wouldn’t work just as well if not better. The best answer that comes to mind is that this is a story that, possibly like Tarkovsky’s earlier film Andrei Rublev (which I admit I have not seen), which confronts the topic of faith, but unlike Rublev, is dependant on having characters with a more modern, and in particular more Soviet take on skepticism and religion.

If I had one complaint about this film, it’s that I think the contrast would have been stronger had the scenes within the Zone been in a 16:9 aspect ratio, with the scenes outside staying in monochrome and 4:3. However, going from the documentary material on the film, the movie was a tremendously troubled production, in particular with the developers ruining the negative from the first round of filming.

The film also has one thing in common with the John Wayne film The Conqueror – it was filmed in a tremendously toxic environment. While the environment of the Zone is very beautiful, it’s also toxic as hell, with industrial pollution in the environment giving much of the cast and crew cancer, including Tarkovsky himself.

As with Solaris, this is a film I absolutely recommend watching, though I admit I may be completely off base when it comes to the themes of faith in the film – I’ll let someone more versed than I get into that (and if I do find a good essay on the topic, I’ll pass it along).

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