Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the Great Existentialist Science Fiction Film

It’d been years since I had seen Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s excellent science fiction film, and I watched it last night. For a science fiction movie, Stalker is certainly an oddity. Released in 1979, loosely based on the short novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and directed by Tarkovsky, the masterful Russian director who lived too short a life, it tells the tale of a part of Russia that has been visited by an odd event. It may have been a meteorite that fell, or it may have been an alien visitation. But the event created the Zone, a dangerous area which was cordoned off by the police, and where few could go.

A Stalker – a sort of guide who takes people through the traps in the Zone – meets up with two men who want to visit the Room, a place where wishes come true. One is a Professor, a man of reason, and the other a writer, a man of inspiration. The Stalker is a man of belief. Very little happens in the movie, which lasts more than 2 1/2 hours, except for their trip to the Room, and their discovery of what they want from it.

Stalker is science fiction only in its premise; there are no aliens, no magic, nothing that would be noticed as science fiction. It is a slow movie; very little happens, and some of the shots are several minutes long. It’s a science fiction movie as it would have been written by Samuel Beckett. Yet it’s a brilliant existential examination of the desires of men and women.

At first, the film begins in sepia-toned black-and-white, but once the three characters reach the Zone, the film changes to color. Just as Oz was in color, so was the Zone. The Zone is located outside an industrialized city, and is full of the detritus of modernity. Yet Tarkovsky films these banal, cast-off items with the plastic beauty that he showed in all his films. Some of the shots are breathtakingly haunting, yet there is nothing special in them.

In a prescient shot, near the end of the movie, the Stalker can be seen returning to his home with his wife and daughter, and, across the river, a nuclear power plant is seen. The Zone could be the area surrounding Chernobyl. There is no devastation, simply signs of nature taking over some human artefacts.

According to an interview with the production designer, the film took two years to shoot. The first year’s footage was lost, apparently because it was an experimental film stock that couldn’t be developed. (Though that suggests that it was only sent for development after the entire film was shot, which seems at odds with the way movies were created at the time.) Tarkovsky then started over, reshooting the entire movie, over another year.

The DVD is decently produced, though the English subtitles are a bit clunky. It contains the original mono soundtrack, and also a recent 5.1 mix, which, in my opinion, ruins the movie. It is merely the mono soundtrack with added environmental sounds, trying to create “atmosphere,” yet Tarkovsky used a lot of silence in this film, and the surround mix is never quiet.

I first saw Stalker in the early 1980s at a retrospective of movies by Wim Wenders in New York. Wenders had made a selection of films to be shown with his movies, and, preceding his Kings of the Road (In the Course of Time), was Stalker and John Ford’s The Searchers. All three of these movies are quests, searches for people or ideas, and the very long program that day (more than 7 hours) was an extraordinary example of three different approaches to the quest movie. Since then, it has been one of my favorite films. It’s an odd movie, more like a Beckett play than science fiction, yet it is unforgettable.

If you’ve never seen Stalker, and this review makes it sound interesting, you should be all means watch it. It is a truly unforgettable movie by one of the great directors of the 20th century. His life and career were too short, but his films are all masterpieces.

Update: Author Geoff Dyer has written an entire book about Stalker called Zona. Read my review of Zona.