Stalker (Сталкер) is a 1979 science fiction film about three worn down men — the Professor, the Writer, and their guide, the Stalker — who visit a mysterious Zone, an unnerving off-limits national park of sorts somewhere in the Soviet realm. Their objective is a space inside the Zone, known as the Room, believed to fulfil a person's innermost desires.
Stalker was directed by Soviet auteur Andrei Tarkovsky and is based on the novel Roadside Picnic by brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
I've seen Stalker once before, on a small screen. I couldn't pass on a chance to see the great work in a cold, damp, derelict and repurposed railway under-bridge with trains gently clonking overhead. The ideal setting to revisit Tarkovsky's strange world and its looming supernatural thrill.
In hindsight, a good blanket would have improved the viewing experience. On the other hand, there absolutely was a certain shared experience to be had, shivering together both with our travelling trio and the rest of the audience.
Stalker is a slow film and rewards careful rewatching. There are as many reads of the film as there are viewers. A great deal has been said about Stalker and its symbolisms, storytelling, and style — the source material, the details and the grand themes — even the strained production of the film. The art of cinema.
I'll keep to a few points that I picked up anew during this revisit to the Zone. I was intrigued by what I remembered and didn't. Spoilers ahead, of course.
I remembered the sepia tone of the town, and the thrillingly abrupt transition to colour as the trio enters the Zone to signify that we are not in Kansas anymore. I didn't quite remember how we fall asleep with the Writer, the "Is it all a dream?"–interpretation. I didn't remember the understated dark humour. Priceless comment as the rail car is sent back. How does the trio return to the bar? How are they so happy to be back, and seemingly not in a hurry?
I didn't pay attention to the embers by the water just before the rest scene, pretty much the only visible indication of supernatural physics. I didn't remember the phone call or the professor's backstory.
I remembered that the psychology and the philosophising gets on the heavy side. I didn't remember how little actually happens - the suspense is so gripping and slowly choking first time around. Gaiman's "...and then what happened?"
I didn't pay attention to the sepia tone missing from Monkey's latter scenes. I didn't notice the Stalker's massive bookcase or remember his messianic antics right at the end. Will Self argues that Tarkovsky is best understood when viewed through the lens of his deep Christian faith. I agree, I think religion is the key to Stalker.
I think the film could use a little bit of a shake, there's maybe 20min of slack, but on the other hand one could argue that the momentary loss of focus is well justified. Production values are what they are: this is science fiction without the fantastical technology or the aliens on screen. Instead we have artful cinematography and looong takes.
Knowing that nothing much happens gave the second viewing a curious flavour of watching what is effectively three randos full of hot air going fishing in Estonia for the weekend. One arrives at a neat conclusion, only to be shown Monkey and her abilities in the final scene.
Must see slow cinema, an antidote to our tepid, transient times — a film deliciously open for interpretation.