Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Stalker: The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.
Andrei Tarkovsky's Сталкер (Stalker) is a film of many questions, but very few answers. It concerns three men who journey to a place known only as the Zone, which may or may not be the site of a meteor strike or an alien spacecraft landing. They sneak past a military blockade that guards the Zone. Why did the military feel obligated to blockade the Zone? We don't know, and neither do the characters. But they are perfectly willing to risk being shot on their trek to the Zone. Why? Because the Zone, which may or may not exist, is said to be a room which grants the deepest and innermost wishes of those who enter it. How? We are not sure. But it is obvious that the influence of the Zone is beyond our understanding. It distorts the normal laws of physics and somehow seems to set deadly 'traps' for those who seek entry. Progress must be slow, for the slightest mistake could prove fatal.
They are led by a man named Stalker. They do not use the Russian word for stalker, but the English one. His profession is to lead people inside the Zone. He knows how to navigate it and avoid its traps. He brings along metal nuts tied to strips of cloth which he throws ahead of him in order to see whether or not it is safe to continue. Despite his dire warnings, the nuts always land harmlessly. But this doesn't seem to surprise Stalker. They are a necessary precaution, and to do without would mean certain death. This annoys his two clients, named Professor and Writer (Stalker insists that they not tell him their names). They both seek the Zone for reasons that are never truly explained. There are whispers that Writer has lost his inspiration and that Professor wants a Nobel prize, but there seem to be other motivations that they keep secret.
Stalker has traveled to the Zone many times, but he has never entered it. He explains that Stalkers can never enter the Zone. He recalls the story of a previous Stalker named 'Porcupine' who broke this rule. During his trip, he caused his brother to die in the Zone. After reaching the room, he won the lottery. However, he quickly hung himself afterwards. This raises more questions. While the Zone may grant our deepest wishes, do we even know what they are? Was winning the lottery Porcupine's greatest desire? Or could it be that his true wish was an unconscious one: the death of his brother? To that question we only have Porcupine's suicide as an answer. Yes, we realize, it is best if Stalkers stay out of the Zone...
It makes the audience wonder if we as humans are capable of knowing our greatest desires? Are we equipped to seek them out? What are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve them? And, moreover, what happens if we are granted our greatest desires? Are they the key to true happiness or inner fulfillment? These are all questions that are constantly confronted in Stalker. Indeed, the film is inundated with uncertainty and philosophy: Stalker frequently quotes the New Testament. Stalker's wife recites a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev at the end of the film. Tarkovsky injects the script with quotations from his own father. What is the purpose? They certainly do not help explain anything happening in the plot. The three men's philosophical musings have no bearing on their journey. In the end, we are presented with a portrait of a group of men who are merely seeking something. Something which may or may not be there. Something which they may or may not even want.
Tarkovsky was always a master of making normal, everyday objects seem unreal. In his other great science fiction epic Solaris (1972), a few tracking shots of Akasaka, Tokyo are used to help transition between events on earth and events in outer space. In Stalker, Tarkovsky is able to transform scenes of industrial buildings and forests into still lifes from a nightmare. In one of the most famous scenes of the film, the three men break through the military blockade using a railway handcar. Up until this point, the entire film has been in tinted sepia But then as they finally manage to escape from the military, the environment explodes into color. 'We are home,' Stalker exclaims as Writer and Professor cautiously regard their new surroundings.
Key to the entire effect of the film is the cinematography by Alexander Knyazhinsky who re-shot almost the entire thing after it was discovered that the first draft was shot on corrupted film. Knyazhinsky continued Tarkovsky's tradition of long takes with slow camera movements. In fact, for a film that is 163 minutes long, it only contains 142 shots, averaging out to around one minute per shot. Many shots last for more than four minutes. In one of the most famous shots of Tarkovsky's career, the three men sit just outside the entrance of the room in the Zone. The camera regards them and then slowly zooms out, revealing the room to be a shallow pool of water. Suddenly, it begins to rain inside the room. It gets stronger and stronger and louder and louder until suddenly, it just stops. The torrent is reduced to a few solitary raindrops before finally dying out. And still, the three men just sit there.
The glacial camera techniques all lend themselves to the fulfillment of the three classical unities as written by Aristotle in his Poetics. The first is unity of action which states that a play should have only one main action. The second is the unity of place which says that a play should cover only a single physical space and should not compress the area's geography. The third is the unity of time which says that a play should take place over no more time than 24 hours. Tarkovsky, always a strident film theorist, wanted to make Stalker because he could finally make a film that conformed to these elements. And so, we have a film that does indeed realize the unities: there is only the search for the Zone, it takes place in its immediate surroundings, and it takes place over the course of a day and a night. By doing so, it creates an atmosphere that other filmmakers can only dream of creating. The Zone is a world unto itself. We regard it, but we never quite see it. We hear it, but we never quite understand it. We touch it, but we never fully grasp it.
It probably all goes back to a metaphor used by a character in the source novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. The Zone is like the scene of a picnic. After the picnickers leave, animals emerge from the forest and find the refuse left behind: motor oil, flowers, matches, balloons, candy wrappers, etc. The trash is a tangible reality, but it is beyond the animals' understanding or comprehension. The Zone is the aliens' picnic trash: it is there, it is the source of some kind of power, but we can never understand what it is. We can only touch it and hope for the best. And so the Stalker must go on leading men into the heart of this bizarre world. Like a priest offering a prayer, the Stalker puts one foot in front of the other in an attempt to reach an entity that we may not understand, but we desperately want to touch. What is the Zone? Why is it there? What does it do? Do we even want its gifts? These are all questions that have no answers. But then again, that is probably the point. It is the journey, the search for the answer, that drives men forward into the unknown reaches of the universe and their own souls.
Editor's Note: The editor would like to thank Jonathan Cameron for suggesting this movie and birubirFilms for graciously providing it.