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Andrei Tarkovsky I 1979 I Russia

Often described as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker is a visually captivating, metaphor-filled journey for the search of the essence of the human soul. Deep within The Zone, a bleak and devastated forbidden landscape, lies a mysterious room with the power to grant the innermost wishes of those strong enough to make the hazardous journey there. Desperate to reach it, a scientist and a writer approach the Stalker, one of the few able to navigate The Zones menacing terrain, and begin dangerous trek into the unknown.  


Stalker is a film about meaning. As the three men venture into the unknown wasteland, they don't know what to expect. All they know is that each one of them is looking for something: the writer is willing to obtain inspiration for his stories, the scientist wants the truth more than anything else and the Stalker simply wants faith. While their desires do not inter-relate, it is the mere fact that theyre desiring for something which connects them all. And after all, it is The Room which they're really looking for. Their lives are not as they would like them to be, and for some reason or other they are certain that this room will solve all their problems. The Stalker, despite his wretchedness and his being, as he well puts it, "a louse" is the man with the most conviction. He's a philosopher, a hunter of implication, a man who wants to be with God above everything else. He seeks happiness, yet he does not truly know how to obtain it. While his two comrades do not fully trust him, it is his determination to finish what he has begun that makes them follow him to the end.


Cinematically speaking, Stalker is one of the most visually arresting movies I have ever seen. The film presents us with a world as saddening as the people who inhabit it, a harsh environment full of vastness and isolation, painted in grey, where it rains almost every day. It's a world that seems more artificial than natural, as pollution reigns over it, due to the nuclear power centres, an eerie quietness fills every spot and people dare not rebel. As austere and miserable as though this world may sound, Tarkovsky gently tells us that there can always be a small glint of hope, and indeed, this can be seen in the characters' courage, as they go to a place where few people have been, or even dare to go. This barren, emotionless landscape of silence and seemingly eternal stillness is flawlessly captured by Aleksandr Knyazhnisky's cinematography; there are scenes shot in a stunningly raw, grainy and dark brownish colour, which are the parts in which there is no hope, or where things are not going smoothly -  the lack of dye and the presence of shadows clearly represent the characters' turbulent feelings. Tarkovsky painted the black and white with sepia, and the results are nothing short of mind-buggering. However, there are others, such as when we see The Zone or Stalker's mutant daughter, Monkey, that are shot in colour which is when there is anticipation for a better future, or a search for a dream. The vast majority of the shots are done in gloriously long takes that give a sense of prolonged slowness while at the same time permitting the viewer to explore the concepts which are touched. As usual, Tarkovsky weaves extraordinary images unlike anything we've ever seen before. The positivism and negativity of the characters' lives are magnificently conveyed, but it is Tarkovsky's execution of the rest of the film's elements which fascinate the most. Let's face it: few people would have been able to take a camera, three men and a field and constructed the masterpiece that this film is.


As the writer, the scientist and the Stalker take on The Zone's mysteries, our eagerness to see what they themselves will discover immediately heightens. Because Stalker is a beautiful film; it is an illustration of man's fear to live life to the full and his inability to comprehend its meaning. And as he longs to discover The Room, so do we - we want to see what they see, we want to get to where they go. The pace of the film is slow yet strongly delicate -  of course, if you're looking for an action film of sorts, then this movie is not for you by any means. On their trip several times does the Stalker cite that going on a straight line is almost impossible and that no-one ever comes back the way he went. So they take a detour -  they go all the way round, which, despite slowing down their pace and swelling their time, gives way for a discussion of countless themes: death, suffering and the meaning of life are all talked about by them. There are innumerable symbolisms to be found in the film, and one of the main ones is how the Stalker and his companions have to take the long way in order to attain The Room. Because The Room is a place where our deepest wishes come true, because it represents a sort of Heaven on earth, Tarkovsky tell us, it evidently will not be a place that can be easily reached. One will have to suffer through a lot of things, and follow the hardest -  path but for the better.  Stalker, as one would expect from Tarkovsky, is not a superficial film. In fact, it simply has to be one of the most complex and tantalizingly weaved films I have ever seen. It is a film as powerful as few others are, profound, reflective and thoughtful. While the plot itself may be perplexingly simple, it is the things inside it which carry it to a whole new (and altogether different) level.


The Zone represents the Promised Land, the Garden of Eden. Yet it all seems so pitiful and abject. Surely this is not meant to be a place where we're all meant to be happy? For Stalker, it seems as though it is. Despite all the dangers, he values it for what it is: a place for the humans to live and be content. It is mentioned in the film by the professor that a meteorite fell twenty years ago and thus The Zone was born -  after that, strange things began to occur. The writer then asks what it could have been if it wasn't a meteorite, to which the professor replies by saying that perhaps it was a gift or a message to mankind. Sent by whom, though? Tarkovsky was a devout Christian, and evidently God played an imperative role in his life as, it does in the film. Despite his name being mentioned once in a while, no real direct allusions are given to Him. However, Tarkovsky suggests instead of clarifying, and asks instead of answering. It is us who have to solve the riddle, not the director. The Zone could have been a paradise created by an almighty figure, a result of the meteorite crashing into the area, or perhaps it merely is an allegory of the disastrous Chernobyl incidents.


Stalker is a film of ineffable ambiguity. First of all, it is very hard to determine which genre it really belongs to; is it a drama, a science fiction, a parable or a pseudo-religious analysis? It's rather difficult to define, yet I'd say its none and all of them simultaneously. Tarkovsky keeps shifting genres every time, but they all remain the same, they're all still there, they're all palpable. Secondly, one really takes a long time wondering as to what it all means. What is Tarkovsky trying to tell us? What is he trying to communicate with us? At one point in the film, a character says, "It is better to live a bitter happiness than a dull grey life." If this is the message of the film, it is all superbly conveyed, but there's more to that than meets the eye. The enigmatic (though somewhat logical) ending, with the mutant daughter and her supposedly telekinetic powers, means much more than what is shown, but it is the bizarre vagueness which makes it so spectacular.  Ultimately, Stalker is not mere cinema, it's a masterwork of poetry created by a major artist. Insinuating, compelling, amazing and distinctive, Stalker truly is one of the greats. Pure genius.

Reviewed by The Third M?n, 2003