Ranking: #35/111

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia)

Genre: Science Fiction/Apocalypse

Stalker is an artistic interpretation of a modern Russian science fiction novel called Roadside Picnic written by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The well-received novel, published in 1972, is about the aftermath of a visit by aliens to Earth several years after they have departed, leaving behind several landing areas, called Zones. Although it’s both forbidden and dangerous to enter any Visit Zone, a black market is flourishing in the sale of alien debris or litter salvaged from these alien landing areas by people called stalkers (that is, illegal prospectors). The children of stalkers sometimes end up being disfigured, presumably as a result of some alien bug picked up while in a Zone or some mysterious radiation effects.

The Zones are controlled by the International Institute of Extra-Terrestrial Cultures.

In the post-apocalyptic world of Stalker, Tarkovsky has turned the Zones into places of mystic pilgrimage where those brave enough to enter are stripped of all that is impure and where existence is pared down to its spiritual essence. Here is where you find out if there is a meaning to life or not.  In other words, Tarkovsky’s strange and alluring movie is not about aliens or extra-terrestrial intelligence; it’s about a spiritual transcendence that can save humanity from its empty materialism. Stalker, in short, is an allegory about the search for spiritual meaning in a fallen and desolate world.

It has been pointed out that Tarkovsky used Soviet-made filmstock to lower contrasts and give the imagery “a murky greenish-blue cast” (Bordwell, D & Thompson, K, 1997. Film Art – An Introduction, p.212). This gives the whole film a subtle “alien” muted feel to it, representing the world that has not been redeemed with a spiritual purpose. The colour palette also contains mostly browns and greens. Tarkovsky was heavily influenced by the films of Bergman and Bresson with their sombre tones, stark settings and minimalist stories.

Another distinctive feature of the film, in addition to the muted greenish atmosphere, is that he wanted to create an almost timeless feel, with no time lapse between shots, “as if the whole film had been made in a single shot” (Tarkovsky, A, 1986. Sculpting in Time – Reflections on the Cinema, p.194). Later, in the Zone itself, “the future is part of the present.” In going into the Zone, they have entered timelessness.

In all Tarkovsky’s films, he strives to reach the audience through striking images that convey a mystic, or spiritual, meaning. That is why his style tends towards the poetic. Stalker is no different. The audience is called upon to “intuit” what is happening in what is an aesthetic journey through the film, rather than to “reason” about what is happening in the film.

The director has explained the theme of a spiritual crisis which lies behind the “prospecting” by the stalker and his visitors to the Zone: “A spiritual crisis is an attempt to find oneself, to acquire new faith…And how could it be otherwise when the soul yearns for harmony, and life is full of discordance. This dichotomy is the stimulus for movement, the source at once of our pain and our hope; confirmation of our spiritual depths and potential.” (Tarkovsky, A, 1986. Sculpting in Time – Reflections on the Cinema, p.193). The Zone is like a world in which a character will survive, or not, depending “on his own self-respect” and “his capacity to distinguish between what matters and what is merely passing” (Tarkovsky, A, 1986. Sculpting in Time – Reflections on the Cinema, p.200). A crisis emerges in a Tarkovsky film when a character cannot find a balance “between reality and the harmony for which he longs” (Tarkovsky, A, 1986. Sculpting in Time – Reflections on the Cinema, p. 204).

In the film, the stalker is accompanied to the Zone by a professor of physics and a writer who has lost his inspiration. This is the disillusionment of a spiritual crisis when harmony and meaning have been lost. When they get to the Zone, they find “it’s the quietest place on earth”, deserted, vaguely forbidding. The flowers have no scent and it stinks like a swamp. Here, life is decaying.

The stalker has paid a heavy price for his commitment to keep visiting the Zone. His daughter was born in the Zone without legs and is considered a “mutant”. Tarkovsky returns again and again in his movies to the theme of redemption through suffering. It is one of his most common themes and one of his deepest beliefs.

Once they are in the Zone, the three men search for the Room, beyond the threshold “where dreams and your most cherished desires come true”. One of the meanings they discover is the “unselfish nature” of true art. It is a reason for existence to create beauty and works of art. The stalker explains that the main thing is to believe no matter how hard life gets. For the scientist and the writer have lost their faith, while the stalker holds on for dear life to his.

In some ways, the Zone is a purgatory that burns up all that’s impure and leaves only the pure spirit.

When the three visitors return to their community, they have only found what they really wanted to find. The Stalker still has his faith, his capacity to believe, and there is a stunning moment in the closing sequence when his lame daughter walks and the film turns into bright, vivid colours, as she is then carried on her father’s shoulders. The family has found some healing, some hard-fought peace, a piece of a miracle.

Instead of seeing Stalker as the most abstract film ever made, I consider it rather to be an amazingly original spiritual allegory skilfully placed and disguised inside the shell of a science fiction story.