Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 25 November 2006
Source Kino / Ruscico DVD
Stalker opens in a dilapidated, sepia-toned urban locale. The walls are all made of splintered wood, the floors creaking and giving way as someone walks on them. Dogs are whining, and the air is damp and dirty—everything is worn and depressed. Herein we find the stalker and his wife engaged in a ritual spat in an abode strewn with countless books and bereft of any contemporary technology. He moves outdoors but the environment remains oppressive. There is no fresh air, no new ideas, no freedom.
He enlists two men: a professor and a writer, both of whom seek entry into the Zone. It is a segregated environment that contains a room prophesied to fulfill their greatest wishes, and the stalker possesses the rare ability to lead them through it. Both men share similar motives: the writer seeks inspiration, the professor seeks discovery; both are essentially seeking knowledge. This is an unromantic and practical motivation, but the stalker warns them to follow him closely, for the Zone is an unpredictable and dangerous place, even if sparsely inhabited, and even those who found entry into the Room returned with new and greater despairs.
The focus is solely on the internalized motives of these characters. Despite this, Stalker remains a lucidly visual film: having followed the stalker through an army-regulated barrier and on to a handcar, the film’s palette changes at this instant—the monochrome opening is replaced by lush, organic blues, greens, and browns as the three men cross into the Zone. This transition is relayed with little revelation. On the aforementioned handcar, the scene (which is silent, save for the rustle of the rusted train wheels) is comprised of static shots that frame each man’s profile. There is the impression that any motivation or enthusiasm is matched, if not surpassed, by trepidation, the visit engaged not only by the potential for discovery, but also out of desperation and fear.
All three men retain their anonymous titles throughout the film, and the furthered descriptions of each — revealed intermittently during their search of the Room — fail to adequately personalize them. (It should be noted that the semi-derogatory English connotation of the word “stalker” is not intended in this film.) They instead remain archetypes. The writer speaks of his difficulty in writing, the professor of his frustration in research. They are skeptics. The search for the Room is a sort of pilgrimage; reaching it will affirm one’s faith, and it will also — in turn — disable any utility for hope. As, in this environment, hope is among the only tenets on which one may subsist, the collective loss of such is the greater risk—the discovery of the Room, the professor and writer fear, would lead inevitably to its exploitation. On its threshold the professor procures a bomb that will destroy the Room, depriving their revelations under the pretense of sustaining hope in the large remainder of those who have not entered it.
Description of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker encourages genre categorization as science-fiction, a trait that also misappropriates his 1972 Solaris. This is chiefly attributed to a monologue late in the film delivered by the stalker’s wife, in which she infers that he is not human. (Their daughter possesses curious extra sensory ability as a result of her father’s inhuman genealogy.) This characterization — relying almost entirely out of inference and not example — may be extended: the writer and professor exude essentially human faults in their failure to enter the room, and it is of note that the stalker does not share these faults. His reasoning for leading them through the Zone is predominantly one of authority—in the Zone’s most dangerous leg, he issues the professor to go first; the insistence implies that he is protecting himself, and furthermore that he perceives his company to be the more expendable.
Close-ups throughout Stalker compose pollution and decay, concrete or metal constructs rife with water contaminated with some manufactured chemical substance—in the shot that precedes the epilogue, a goldfish may be seen swimming adjacent to what has the appearance of a swelling cloud of ink. This motif of decay is manifested in the film’s making: it was shot in proximity to both a hydroelectric station and a chemical plant, both of which (Vladimir Sharun, the sound designer, recalls in an interview on the Kino disc) contaminated waters in the surrounding region. Midway through the film, the three men enter the elongated, sewer corridor that leads to the Room. It is dripping wet, and portions of it are entirely submerged, which all three men proceed to traverse. Given Sharun’s thoughts, the Zone’s toxicity may not have been merely fictional—seven years later, Andrei Tarkovsky would die of a particular form of lung cancer, one that also led to the deaths of his principle acting talent Anatoliy Solonitsyn, the writer, in 1982, and his wife, Larisa, in 1998.