A haunting Dystopia, Stalker is set amidst the decrepit ruins of an unnamed town, situated on the outskirts of a quarantined and heavily guarded sector known as 'The Zone'. Inside there is believed to be a Room with the power to grant any believer who enters, their inner-most desires. The story depicts an expedition led by a 'Stalker' (Alexander Kainanovsky), a guide who has chosen to dedicate his life escorting curious travellers past the armed barricades, through the danger-riddled sector to the aforementioned 'Room'. Following the events of an undefined previous occurrence, which led to the depopulation of the entire area, the otherwise mundane rural area has been transformed into a government cordoned region, uninhabited but fraught with dangers sensed but rarely seen. The film opens in sepia, with the Stalker rising from his bed in the middle of the night to leave for his assignment, a role his clients pay handsomely for. His wife urges him not to go because of the legal consequences of being caught, but he ignores her and leaves for a local bar, where he meets his clients, known only as The Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and The Professor (Nikolai Grinko).
The border of the Zone is protected by barbed wire fences and armed guards, and the trio try and evade the military blockade and enter the Zone using a Range Rover. Attracting gunfire, they manage to follow a train in through a set of briefly opened gates and then ride a railway work car into the heart of the Zone. During this final journey the camera lingers for minutes on the faces of the three men, as they emerge from the darkness of the night into daylight and the image transforms from sepia into full colour. The Stalker, looking frequently distressed throughout the course of their expedition, instructs his clients to follow his orders exactly to avoid and survive the dangers, though invisible, that surround them. He plots their course through the lush greenery by throwing a nut tied to some string to ensure there are no gravitational anomalies. Frustrated bickering and disbelief begins to emerge amongst the other two men about whether these elaborate precautions are necessary and the reasoning behind taking an extended and seemingly more perilous journey to The Room.
As a viewer you are also constantly questioning whether or not what The Stalker believes (he relays the account of his mentor and his previous experiences within the Zone) are genuinely acceptable. It is stipulated early that an army platoon had entered the Zone shortly after the event and never returned. Throughout their journey the men come across a number of rusted tanks and skeletons, implying that previous insurgents had resulted in deaths. The land is actually lushly covered by thick green grass, and though scarred with wreckage and riddled with rain-drenched bogs, seems peaceful and deserted. But there is every possibility, based on what we are informed about by The Stalker and what Tarkovsky reveals with his camera, that the calm and quiet expanse masks sinister natural and unnatural elements within. It is this atmosphere of heightened tension that makes the film so engaging.
The fairly laborious forward (and often backwards) motion is accompanied by several deep philosophical discussions where the characters share their reasons for wanting to visit The Room. The cynical and burnt-out Writer appears to have lost inspiration and hope, while The Professor claims to desire winning the Nobel Prize, though his true intentions are later revealed. One lengthy discussion takes place when the men are laying out and resting on a waterlogged plain. They sleep uneasily and contemplate their journey (both what they have encountered, and what lies ahead). I thought that Stalker, quite philosophically, analyses the confusion individuals face when asked to pursue their strongest personal desires and criticises the instability of human nature's faith in themselves. The Stalker has come to realise, after countless expeditions, that only the most flawed and troubled men are willing to sacrifice themselves for their inner-most desires. Have they lost all hope in being able to live happily and content with their lives? Faced with fear of the possibility of having the darkest of human desires come to fruition within the room, he has never entered The Room himself, nor had any desire too. In the latter half of the film, though, he begins to face his own crisis.
Just as important as the journey itself, these philosophical discussions are equally compelling. Passing through an underground tunnel The Stalker calls the 'Meat Grinder' the trio arrive amidst a crumbling ruin and at the cusp of The Room. The sequence of events that follow are intriguing, perplexing and likely to prove unfulfilling and disappointing for a lot of people. In turn, each of the trio analyse their own thoughts about The Room; the implications of entering and the fear of witnessing their desires come to fruition, whether The Room should exist, and who Stalker really is. On my first viewing I was a little disappointed by the conclusion, considering the wonderful build-up. But, since that viewing, Stalker has lingered with me ever since, and I now accept that this is an amazing film and one that metaphorically documents life as a continual quest for the truth.
While Terrence Malick's films are beautifully shot, Days Of Heaven in particular, I can't think of anything that outdoes the work in Stalker. The cinematography is amongst the most impressive I have ever seen. The images are striking and haunting. The film is comprised of a series of longish takes (some shots are 4-5 minutes in length) and the movement of the camera is so subtle that you often don't realise that the camera is gradually moving in towards the characters or slowly tracking them. Often Tarkovsky chooses to linger on the faces of the characters, observing them and capturing natural reactions. The contrasting use of sepia during the sequences on the outskirts and vivid colour (the green is incredible) within the Zone is very effective. Here are some examples of the incredible images:
The haunting accompanying score by Eduard Artemyev builds a tense atmosphere. But I found the absence of a score to be just as memorable. Every minor sound affect, be it the footsteps of the characters as they ascend or descend stairs or splash in puddles, is magnified. Often the boundaries between music and sound are blurred, as natural sounds and music interact to the point of being indistinguishable. Very often too, the score and the character's dialogue (Stalker quotes the New Testament) is disconnected from the image. But in nearly every sequence, you will recognise that Stalker is a work of audio and visual mastery. I don't want to go overboard, so I'll wrap it up. Stalker is a very tough experience, but there is an ethereal, hypnotic quality about the film and it's essential and rewarding. Andrei Tarkovsky was a genius, it's as simple as that.
My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (A)