What Stalker Means to Us
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker because it was the first time I felt like I had experienced a movie instead of just watching it. By the time the credits started to roll, I couldn’t tell you if I was entertained or even how much I enjoyed it. It was simply like a moth to a flame, I was pulled in and entranced by the images and sounds surrounding me. There is a particular scene where every time I watch it, I feel almost hypnotized by the duration and the sound of the scene. For those who have seen it, they know exactly what I’m talking about. There is a hypnotic and surreal feel to this film that lingers a long time after you are done viewing it.
Tarkovsky’s masterpiece deals with three men’s journey through a strange wasteland as they search for a room that grants the heart’s desires. It is an interpretive dystopian look behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union whose aesthetic of the ‘Zone’ would go on to influence numerous other dystopian films and TV shows. The troubles of the film behind the scenes are a story of their own but nothing would deny this masterwork from making an impact in the sci-fi cinema landscape for generations.
Stalker was my first Andrei Tarkovsky film. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a good starting point for a director as unique as him, but it’s where I jumped in. After a lethargic opening section, I wasn’t sure what I had actually jumped into. It felt painstakingly slow but at the same time, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The latter feeling only intensified as the movie progressed. By the end, I was transfixed and even though plot-wise I wasn’t completely sure what was going, I knew I was watching something pretty special.
The movie features many standout visuals with unique landscapes and flamboyant directorial choices. Not to mention the ending, which left me with a lot to think about. I’ve delved into many of Tarkovsky’s other films since and while I can’t say I’ve enjoyed them all, I have been able to appreciate their beauty. Yet nothing has come close to matching that initial feeling of awe I felt when I watched Stalker for the first time.
A writer, a scientist, and an ex con walk into a bar…
It sounds like the set up for a joke, but it’s actually the opening scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1974 science fiction film, Stalker. Stalker is no comedy, though. In fact, there’s not a shred of humor or levity to be found in the film—unless you find existential despair funny… At any rate, I don’t presume to know Tarkovsky’s mind, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that humor (tragic or otherwise) isn’t what the director was going for when he set out to make the film.
But before we start talking meaning, it’s probably worth going over some background on the film. Outside of movie sites like SAW, I’ve never met anyone who has actually seen Stalker. And with attention spans being what they are today, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Stalker will almost certainly always be a niche film, something to be seen and dissected by hardcore film fans and largely ignored by mainstream audiences.
And that’s not meant to denigrate casual moviegoers. Stalker is long. And slow. And ponderous. Even a charitable appraisal of the film has to acknowledge this. I consider it a personal favorite, but I’ve only seen it three times in nearly 10 years. It’s not something you pop in the BluRay player while doing household chores. It’s not a date night movie. And it’s not the kind of movie you can half pay attention to while texting friends or cruising Facebook.
Stalker is a serious film. Even if its origins are more heavily rooted in popular sci-fi than in literary fiction.
Stalker is an adaptation of Boris and Anatoly Strugatsky’s 1972 novella Roadside Picnic, which tells the tale of a post-contact Earth. In the book, the alien visitation is likened to a roadside picnic in which people stop along the roadside for a rest during a long car trip, leaving behind all sorts of refuse and signs of their presence and with no regard for the habitat of the animals and insects living there by the roadside.
Earth, then, to the visiting aliens is little more than a waypoint. A place to stop, refuel, dump their garbage, and move on. The aliens didn’t come for our resources. They didn’t come to subjugate us. They didn’t come to abduct us, dissect us, and learn about us. To the visitors, humanity was worth even less thought than we might give an ant hill.
For us, however, the visitations couldn’t have been more important.
These picnic areas, scattered all across the globe, came to be known as “zones”. These zones were left uninhabitable by the refuse left behind by the aliens. The zones are cordoned off and an attempt is made to study the land and the artifacts left behind. But a black market for the alien tech springs up and men dubbed “stalkers” illegally enter the zones to bring these artifacts out to sell on the black market.
The two works share the same basic premise, but that’s largely where comparisons between the two end. It may come down to translation, but Roadside Picnic feels like the science fiction of an earlier generation. This is particularly noticeable in the dialogue, pacing, and world building, all of which make Roadside Picnic feel like it belongs among the Golden Age works of science fiction rather than those of its New Wave contemporaries.
There’s none of the stiffness of classic sci-fi to be found in Tarkovsky’s film, however. In fact, Stalker is barely a science fiction film at all. Aside from the opening crawl which hints at a possible alien visitation or meteor strike, there’s almost nothing about the film that is fantastical. What little there is is very understated. Where Roadside Picnic indulges in the tropes of the genre, Stalker completely ignores them.
Stalker uses the same setup as Roadside Picnic: something (aliens, a meteor) creates uninhabitable zones all over the world which are then fenced off by world governments to ostensibly protect the populace from the dangers found within them. In Stalker, however, no mention is ever made of the stalkers retrieving tech from the zone to sell on the black market. Stalkers have but one reason to enter the zone, and that is to take paying customers to a place within the zone called “the room”. This room will grant any who enter it their deepest desires.
Where Roadside Picnic is more episodic, telling the story of the protagonist (a stalker named Redrick) through different stages of his life, Stalker tells a more concise story of a single unnamed stalker who enters the zone to guide a writer and a scientist to the so-called room.
So that’s basically the plot. But what is Stalker really about?
Because when you strip Tarkovsky’s film down to plot points, what you end up with is deceptively simple. Very little happens within its almost three hour run time. It’s filled with long takes of landscapes, underpinned by a sparse, at times industrial, soundtrack. Long silences are punctuated by long monologues filled with references to philosophy, religion, and literature.
The first time I saw Stalker, the best explanation my pea brain could come up with had something to do with a critique of Soviet communism.
But Stalker was my first Tarkovsky movie. And I didn’t know that much about him as a filmmaker. As I continued to think about the film, though, I began to suspect there was more to the film than just cheap political allegory. I just had no idea what the hell that might be.
To be honest, I’m not much better off now than I was then in that regard. I do know that people have read Stalker as political commentary. I know there are religious readings of the film as well. I also know that Tarkovsky’s films were deeply personal and that his life experiences often informed his work.
I will say that I see a lot more of the film’s religious undertones than I ever did before. And I don’t know if that has more to do with where I am in my life now versus where I was when I first saw it or if it has more to do with repeat viewings and having read and heard the perspectives of others between subsequent viewings.
Whatever Stalker meant to Tarkovsky, I’ve come to believe that he meant the film as less an intellectual exercise than a personal meditation. In a way, the film is to the audience what the room is to the writer and scientist. It’s meant to be reflective and to reach you on a personal level rather than an intellectual one. What you think about it is less important than how you feel about it. Or what feelings it elicits in you.
Stalker was a notoriously troubled production.
The film was essentially reshot after the lab incorrectly developed the first version, ruining the film stock. Tarkovsky was so depressed he nearly abandoned the project but eventually came around and ended up reshooting the film, going with a different cinematographer after disagreements with original DP Georgy Rerberg. I’ve heard that Tarkovsky actually reshot the film twice. Which means he shot Stalker a total of three times. The original film stock burned up in a fire in the late 80s, but people who saw the original footage shot by Rerberg claim it was even more beautiful than what made it into the finished film.
If that had been the end of Stalker’s troubles, it would have been enough to establish the legend of the film, but it gets worse.
Scenes set within the film’s fictional zone were shot in Estonia in and around an abandoned hydroelectric power plant on the Jägala river. Upriver from this shooting location, though, some kind of plant or factory (different sources describe it as a paper plant or a chemical plant) pumped chemical discharge into the river that the cast and crew had to stand in for hours on end. The pollution is visible at different points in the movie. In one scene, a snow-like substance falls from the sky, though the film is clearly being shot in summer. In another, the river is covered over by some kind of poisonous white foam.
Several crew deaths, including the director and his wife, have been attributed to filming in these polluted locations.
Stalker isn’t the most conventional film to make our Canon list. Even cinephiles will be divided on whether the film is deep or boring. It’s long and slow and you may get to the end and not know what the hell you just watched. But there are movies you just need to see. Even if you don’t understand them. Even if you hate them. Or find them tedious. A canon is essential and we think Stalker is essential.