director Andrei Tarkovsky
Only after the fact, I realized that it had been a decade since I watched my first Andrei Tarkovsky film, Solaris (1972). That fact kind of stunned me. Considering how many movies I’ve seen since then, probably along the lines of 1,500 plus, and that while Solaris was a bit difficult for me, I was definitely interested in seeing more of the Russian filmmaker’s work.
Stalker is actually a kind of interesting comparison point for Solaris. Both are science fiction films dealing with an unknown physical space that has some connection, control, or influence on the mind, psychologically, emotionally, perhaps metaphysically. In Solaris, it’s a planet whose possibly-living ocean is perhaps a deep, disconnected consciousness capable of overwhelming memory. In Stalker, it is the Zone, a space on Earth either hit by a meteorite or perhaps an alien visitation, whose core, a “room” offers visitors access to their innermost desires. Whether it satisfies known desires or uncovers hidden, perhaps more frightening desires, is of question. Each physical space easily play upon Freudian consciousness.
Stalker‘s setting, on Earth, somewhere in Russia, earns it a more prescient quality. The Zone is cordoned off by military and deadly force and it is perhaps poisonous or radioactive. A “stalker” is one who ventures to lead others into the Zone for their own experience, and a stalker is often plagued by deformities in this offspring. With the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980’s, the USSR developed a real world “zone” which is cordoned off, alien, mysterious, abandoned.
The film opens in a stylized black-and-white, the regular world, murky, grim, rutted and muddy, a place of poverty and little else. When the stalker meets his two clients, a writer and a scientist, he traffics them into the abandoned Zone, past the machine guns and guards, and into a lush, green, full-color world in which nature has begun to take over again. But in the Zone, the physical world is not itself. While it’s not always exactly clear what the threats are, the stalker uses simple physical probes to guarantee that the next steps will be safe.
It’s a strange and profound venture. The world is an abandoned factory or hydroelectric project, though with the tiling and the running water and pipe system, I was brought to mind of an abandoned spa. The men all eventually reveal their “real” reason for exploring the Zone, the increasing temerity of reality.
It’s not a science fiction of laser guns and jetpacks. It’s an eerie future steeped in the physical presence of the film.
It’s not as long and slow as Solaris, perhaps, but it is still long and it’s not exactly pulse-pounding. It’s meditative, intellectual, contemplative. And unlike 10 years ago when I watched Solaris, I wasn’t nearly as consciousness-challenged. And I found myself liking it more right off the bat.
This film, though, isn’t one that is so quickly or readily absorbed. It’s been sitting in my head since, echoing in its oddly discordant, disconnected versions of reality. Strange, profound, and lasting.