Taking its inspiration from an Eastern bloc sci-fi novel entitled The Roadside Picnic by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, "Stalker" is a film that literally typifies Andrei Tarkovsky's approach to film-making. Mysterious, personal, elliptical, beautiful, philosophical, disturbing, inspiring all at the same time. But there are two factors above all others that make this film truly a work of genius. Firstly, if Tarkovsky ever intended the audience to glean one specific interpretation of his film he never shows his cards, thereby inviting every individual viewer to undergo an experience vastly different than the person sitting next to them. Secondly, "Stalker" is one of those rare films that replays and resonates in your mind long after it has finished. You may be driving along months after you last saw it, and an image or idea from the film might suddenly pop into your mind. You may be running a bath one morning and for no obvious reason find your musing about one of the many mysteries generated in the film.
In a small, unspecified country, there exists a Zone where the laws of science and logic cease to hold true. The Zone was formed following a meteorite strike (or possibly a celestial visitation). Now, the border of the Zone is continually patrolled by armed guards with instructions to prevent anyone from entering. And there are plenty of people who WOULD like to enter, for rumours abound that at the centre of the Zone lies a Room where innermost wishes can be granted. Stalker (Aleksandr Kajdanovsky) makes a living by smuggling people into the Zone and guiding them through its hazardous landscape to the Room. His wife (Alisa Frejndlikh) has grown to detest his frequent absences on such dangerous jobs, more so because while he is away she must tend to their daughter Monkey (Natasha Abramova), physically disabled yet in possession of telekinetic powers due to her father's exposure to the Zone. Stalker finds himself taking two new "customers" into the Zone Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn), who wishes to find fresh inspiration, and Professor (Nikolai Grinko), who claims to be fascinated by the scientific mysteries within the Zone, but is in fact on a secret mission to blow it up in order to prevent the potential for an evil person to have their darkest wishes granted at the Room.
Tarkovsky presents the outer world as an impoverished, litter-strewn dump, shot in endlessly dull sepia colours, while the scenes based in the Zone are filmed in striking colour to emphasis the lush greenery. But he also makes the Zone seem permanently dangerous, with Kajdanovsky uttering cryptic warnings about its ever-changing pathways and wearing furtive, fearful expressions upon his face all the time they are there. By having his camera more often than not positioned at some distance from the characters, Tarkovsky makes the audience feel like spies and this in turn creates paranoid suspense, as if the three main characters are continually being watched by some unknown force. In the film's stunning climax, Stalker assumes messianic characteristics - he breaks down in tears and laments the fact that nobody he has taken to the Room has fulfilled their dreams. "Nobody believes. Nobody! Who am I going to take there? Oh, God
And what's most awful is that no-one needs it. No-one needs that room, and all my efforts are just in vain". Like Jesus, Stalker is trying to convince people that they MUST have faith
. Tarkovsky's shattering conclusion is that he cannot win in the face of a cynical society, but the one redeeming fact is that his daughter's amazing powers may give her strength to succeed where her father has not. This is challenging, essential cinema.
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