Director Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi epic had been sitting on my to-watch for some time. By sheer chance, I read the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, which Stalker is based on. There are SPOILERS ahead for both Stalker and Picnic.
Both works share the “stalker” concept, with subtle nuances. In Stalker, they’re professional guides that lead tourist clients through The Zone, while in Picnic, they’re industrial scavengers that sell the alien Visitors’ technology scraps for profit. And after getting into the Zone…they’re completely different.
What we get in Stalker is this atmospheric, slow-paced, high-art thinkpiece mixing science-fiction dystopia, political symbolism, and spiritual journey in search of human’s “truest desire.” Tarkovsky’s team MVP was their location scout. The abandoned hydropower plants in Estonia and the old Flora chemical factory in the center of Tallinn, all of the on-location shooting with no CGI was THE most incredible part of Stalker for me.
All the Stalker scenes outside of the Zone were filmed in sepia or a similar high-contrast brown monochrome, which so many other later films riffed from (see: Blade Runner 2049). Changing to the full-color abandoned Zone was a trip, along with the close-up shots of characters’ prostrated bodies in the mud, the philosophical dialogue of the Writer, and the “meatgrinder” tunnel scenes.
Look, I understand when a film runs over, there are editing problems, and Stalker’s production was a mess. Some folks literally died from exposure to toxic materials on set. Good films, like all art, provoke reactions, whether emotions or thoughts. But films carry the extra burden of story-telling. And good stories must hold attention, not throw the viewer away so frivolously.
Stalker tries to throw you OFF the train so many times, it dares you to keep watching. When people complained it was too slow, Tarkovsky replied, “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.” Woof.
In retrospect, it’s special how Western audiences resonated with Soviet filmmaking. Just ONE example of its legacy, the first burning of a wooden, symbolic man at the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, occurred on “Zone Trip Number 4” in 1990, thanks to the Cacophony Society. This became Burning Man lore.
Unfortunately, both Picnic and Stalker suffer the same fate of promising beginnings, with disappointing conclusions. Why didn’t anyone enter the Room in Stalker!? The Writer’s explanation of blaming Porcupine’s suicide was lackluster. And was the telekinesis of Monkey worth the payout? In the end, you won’t forget you saw all 2 hours and 42 minutes of Stalker, realizing the journey was more memorable than the destination.
After watching Stalker that night, I had a dream where I was in an enormous town hall meeting. There were ballerina dancers in their delicate tutus. The people were voicing their opinions. One confessed, “No one here ever talks to me.” And immediately, someone behind him quipped, “You can talk with me, I’m British, too!” Then another began complaining about the leadership. A manager wrote down his name with a note then responded in cryptic Politik-speak.
The meeting went on and on with no end in sight until I woke up.