Stalker (1979)

Stalker first published by SciFiNow

Stalker opens with two shots: a bar opening; and the ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky) awake besides his wife (Alisa Freindlich) and their disabled daughter ‘Monkey’ (Natasha Abramova). Although his wife begs him to stay with his family in conventional, licit employment, Stalker heads out once more to guide paying clients into a forbidden Zone where the normal rules of time and space do not apply, and to the Room said to grant people their deepest desire. From the bar, Stalker picks up ‘Writer’ (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and ‘Professor’ (Nikolai Grinko) – anonyms used to conceal their identity, but also to mark their archetypal nature in a film whose strange spaces are always tinged with broader allegorical import.

Once the trio has reached the Zone, a shift from sepia monochrome to full colour marks the transition to a place of otherness. There, in a damp, overgrown landscape all at once utterly naturalistic yet filled with the flotsam and jetsam of the characters’ personal memories and dreams, the three discourse on art, science and faith, while taking an irrationally circuitous route towards the Room that will confront them with their innermost selves.

Loosely adapted by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky from their own 1972 novella Roadside Picnic, and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, 1972), Stalker traces a mysterious, metaphysical odyssey undertaken by three strangers uncertain of their own desires’ boundaries. Working closely with cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky, Tarkovsky shoots in long takes, where the meandering camera often becomes a quasi-numinous presence in itself, tracking the detritus of the characters’ subconsciouses, and alone entering the Room to look back at the threshold where the men hesitate. It is a shot which is matched in the film’s coda, as we see the three men sat back in the bar and looking out the door (and to the camera), before Stalker crosses the threshold to rejoin his family outside, in what is perhaps a realisation of the film’s purest desire.

Significantly, in a film dominated by lost, confused and desperate men, the final message – about the need for love, loyalty and faith, even sorrow and suffering, in a happy life – is delivered, direct to camera, by a woman, even as Monkey is revealed to have uncanny powers that are maybe mutant, maybe messianic.

Summary: Andrei Tarkovsky’s spiritual sci fi travels into the very souls of men yearning for otherness.

© Anton Bitel