❉ In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, a guide leads two men through an area known as the Zone to find a room that grants wishes.
In a black-and-white, industrial world, three men meet at a bar and set of on a journey. One is a Stalker; a guide in a forbidden territory called The Zone. They will evade boarder guards and journey on a rail cart into a realm of colour, alien artefacts and miracles. One of the most highly regarded science fiction films ever made is about three blokes going for a walk. Spoilers ahead.
Very loosely adapted from the forth and final section of the Strugatsky Brother’s 1972 novel, ‘Roadside Picnic,’ ‘Stalker’ is, in essence, the tale of a modern-day (or near-future) quest. It is Tarkovsky’s second venture into science fiction, the first being ‘Solaris’ (1972). In his essential book on film theory, ‘Sculpting in Time,’ Tarkovsky expressed his dissatisfaction with ‘Solaris.’ He was unable to separate the inherent genre elements from the story. This is understandable, since the majority of the film doesn’t take place in Tarkovsky’s usual earthy, rain-sodden settings, but aboard a space station orbiting the titular planet. In ‘Stalker,’ the fantastical elements are played down, to the point where almost all of them have to be taken on faith, and faith is at the very heart of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre.
The two films are, at least. thematically similar. ‘Solaris’ features a planet-sized living entity trying to communicate with an investigating team of astronauts by haunting them with living personifications of their own pasts (specifically an embodiment of the main character’s dead wife reconstituted not as she was, but as he remembers her), and The Zone of ‘Stalker’ is, according to the opening text crawl, the location of an alien visitation where there is to be found mystical artefacts, the most important of which is The Room, a place that grants the deepest wish of whoever enters it. The problem, of course, is that no one really knows what their deepest wish is, and Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) recounts to his companions–named simply Writer (Anatoly Solinitsyn) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko)–the tale of his mentor, Porcupine, who attempted to use the room to resurrect his brother, who was killed when Porcupine sent him through one of The Zone’s deadliest traps, only for Porcupine return home and find himself immensely rich instead, which prompted him to hang himself.
In the film, Stalker suggests that the purpose of The Zone is “to make us happy!” The book posits that The Zones (in the book there are many all around the world) were the result of a literal roadside picnic; the alien fleet stopped off on Earth in the same way motorists would stop in a forest clearing for a break, leaving miraculous to us, useless to them, bits and pieces lying around like cosmic spark plugs and wish-granting sandwich wrappers for us primitive forest animals to ponder over. Although the Strugatsky brothers wrote the screenplay, the film is pure Tarkovsky and he had them run through ten separate drafts before he was satisfied. While the book is a sprawling exploration of the cultural and economic impact of an alien visitation, covering a period of several years, Tarkovsky equates The Zone to either an alien miracle or the result of a radioactive meteor impact, and his film, at two and half hours, plays out over one day, and, as per his usual methods, some long, one-shot takes are in real time. His book is not called ‘Sculpting in Time’ for nothing;Tarkovsky believed that film was the only art form capable of capturing its passage.
The cinematic Zone is never explicitly seen to actually work. There are moments where something supernatural does seem to occur. Writer gets sick of Stalker’s insistence on going the long way around to minimise the chance of getting killed by one of The Zone’s deadly traps (which Stalker claims only let those without hope pass) and heads toward The Room on his own, only to be stopped after a few paces by a disembodied voice warning him to turn back. Professor argues that Writer could have thrown his voice after loosing his nerve in an effort to save face. Halfway through, the travellers get separated and either The Zone’s geography shifts, or they simply double back on themselves. Near the end of the quest, Writer takes a wrong turn after an incredibly tense sequence through which he is elected to go first through the a long, terrifying tunnel known as The Meat Grinder (or Meat Mincer, depending which translation you watch), the very trap that killed Porcupine’s brother. He ends up in a huge room that looks like an indoor desert, and a bird disappears in mid-flight after one of Stalker’s nut-weighted bandages, which he constantly throws ahead to make sure the way is safe, is seemingly annihilated in a flash of light, but everything happens so quickly that we’re never given a full view as to what’s really transpired.
The major demonstrations of The Zone’s effectiveness are entirely left open to interpretation. Stalker has never actually seen the results of The Room’s power. He simple guides them their and back again. We are only told that it works. Once at the threshold, Writer, who has gone through a dark night of the soul on his journey realises that if he has everything he wants, he won’t be inspired to write anymore and Professor, whose intention was actually to destroy the room with a bomb he brought along, has a change of heart after Stalker pleads with him that it’s the only thing of value he has. It is Stalker’s and other’s faith in The Room, not its actual power, that’s important.
In fact, while we see the remains of catastrophically devastated military vehicles left over from the first exploration of The Zone, we never see what destroyed them. The place is cordoned off and well-guarded, and Stalker and his companions have one hell of a job getting in, crashing their jeep through barriers and ducking machine gun fire, but even the authorities are only guard The Zone because they don’t seem to know what else to do.
The film opens with Stalker, his Wife (Alissa Freindlich), and Monkey (Natalya Abramova), his crippled daughter, lying asleep as a heavy train goes past their home, rattling glasses on a table as it goes. In the final shot, filmed in colour to hark back to the magic of The Zone, Monkey (a “Zone victim”) seems to move glasses simply by staring at them. Is it the result of telekinesis, or the vibrations of another passing train? This comes after Stalker bemoans modern man’s lack of faith to his wife. He comes across as either a holy fool or prophet, depending on the viewer’s interpretation. His Wife reveals in a fourth wall breaking monologue that they are, despite the grimness that surrounds them, unambiguously in love and tear-jerkingly content in the face of Stalker’s dreaming and constant imprisonments for trespassing into The Zone.
Stalker and his family don’t need to actually use The Room, because they already have everything they want and it’s strongly implied that he will soon take them off to live in The Zone away from the tortures of the faithless world.
❉ About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became and actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.
❉ Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022