After watching Solaris, last Thursday friend and I were back at the Astor Theatre for more of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s meditative, arty, defiantly slow sci-fi. I love the story I read where, upon hearing from the officials at the State Committee for Cinematography that the film was too slow and dull, Tarkovsky’s reply was that the film “needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts”.
Stalker is technically based on Roadside Picnic, a science fiction novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky who also adapted the screenplay, but it’s a very different beast from the book and only keeps its basic concepts. In a vague near-future, in an unnamed country, a mysterious event (aliens, meteorite, something else) creates the Zone, an area sealed off by the government that contains both mortal dangers and mystical wonders. Despite the restrictions, it breeds a new illegal profession, the Zone explorers known as the Stalkers. As the film begins, a nameless Stalker prepares to take two men, referred to solely as Writer and Professor, to the spot in the Zone known as the Room, a place said to make your greatest wish come true.
The dreary, dystopian world of Stalker seems to consist mostly of hellish dilapidated industrial spaces, shot in sepia at the start of the film, and serene yet sinister glades and forests, shot in colour. In a big-budget Hollywood remake, the Zone’s deadly traps would probably be shown with a maximum of showy visual effects, but in Stalker the violence and threat of the landscape is only implied and never fully explained. One must never stay long in the same place, or take the same route twice. The Stalker tests the safety by throwing metal nuts with rags attached before the group’s every move. There are remains of rusted army tanks in the grass, dead bodies, ruins, lots of dripping and flowing water. The menacing electronic score adds to the film’s hypnotic pull.
The long and slow journey across the Zone is interspersed with many solemn philosophical conversations in which the travellers debate the nature of their quest and their reasons for venturing into the Zone. Each has a different agenda that, for one particular character, is not disclosed until the very end. A backstory involving the Stalker’s former mentor, told in bits over the film, suggests that having your innermost desires fulfilled could in fact be a terrifying prospect. Only a truly pure person wouldn’t be afraid of what might lurk deep in their subconscious.
I couldn’t say if I “liked” Stalker in a conventional sense, but you can’t help but admire its bleak, uncompromising vision and, like Solaris, it gives you a compelling world to get lost in, even as it tests your patience at times. It has scenes of great emotional power, and even crumbs of humour that made the theatre crack up at least twice.
P.S. I wouldn’t mind seeing a more faithful and conventional adaptation of Roadside Picnic some day, maybe as a TV mini-series with a decent budget. Though I doubt it would keep the book’s ambiguous ending.