A subtle science fiction masterpiece, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 Stalker, this visually stunning and enigmatic film about human curiosity, spiritual fulfilment, hope and desire, goes on an existential quest, which will delight some and infuriate others in equal measure.
The divide between plot-led and character-driven stories creates misunderstanding and hostility among film-lovers. What for one group is a nuanced and detailed tale, for another is nothing else than a boring and overlong story. What some people admire in certain Hollywood blockbusters is seen by others as mindless and bloated entertainment. A further chasm is created by a third group of films – allusive, metaphorical and imagery-preoccupied ones – made by true auteurs like Malick or Kieslowski, and especially, Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky.
Sometime in the future, somewhere in the old Soviet bloc, Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy), a sort of spiritual guide, takes Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and Professor (Nikolay Grinko) to the Zone. There, they want to reach the Room, where every wish is granted. The journey is perilous, but the anxiety felt by the viewers has more to do with their own fear and imagination than with real dangers experienced by the characters. The three men are archetypes, representing different sides of the human psyche: reason, passion and the quest for meaning. Thus, the characters are proxies for ideas travelling throughout one’s life. Professor stands for the mind and the ego; Writer is pure instinct, that is, the body and the id; and Stalker is the spirit, the moral compass, our own super-ego.
What are they looking for inside the Zone? God? Knowledge? Or, as they state, purely the granting of their selfish, individual wishes? The Zone is protected by barbed wire and patrols carrying machine guns. Is the unauthorized status of the place meant to represent how precious what is hidden inside really is? To be perfectly honest, it seems that they don’t even want to be there. Is the Zone to be understood as a garden of Eden, and the Room as a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, left there by aliens as a test to the human will? Is the whole story, in fact, meant to show how little mankind has evolved morally since Mesopotamia? Is the desolate landscape and the detritus-filled ground really a metaphor for the Chernobyl disaster?
..Stalker’s Subconscious and Hypnotic Transcendence.
If the great unquantifiable value of art is to hold a mirror to mankind, then Stalker [сталкер] – one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s many masterpieces, sandwiched between The Mirror (1975) and Nostalgia (1983) – ought to be revered as a wonderful artefact. The film engages viewers in a demanding and intelligent way, asking of the audience way more than, not only most other films, but also most other pieces in any art-form. The slow and long takes, which might annoy many, serve the important purpose of creating pure contemplation, forcing the audience to dwell on the apparently simple ideas exposed by the narrative. In fact, the absence of ‘events’ within the film is a trap which grabs viewers by their throats and places life in front of them.
The most significant moment in the story is when, in front of the Room, instead of entering hurriedly and anxiously, they stop dead in their feet. The Faustian pact that is presented to them in the form of wishes granted and inner self revealed proves to be far more than they bargained for. Is there a larger metaphor meant for mankind here? To me, their journey to the centre of the earth – an odyssey through an industrial wasteland – is meant to be understood as the perversion of the human psyche. The film dramatizes the scenario of the three components of the mind taking on different personas and not only not doing their jobs properly but ultimately subverting the whole. So emblematic of modernity…
In its positive light, the id propels mankind to the edge, feed our passions, direct our gut feelings, makes us all animals – predators to life. In the story, embodied by Writer, the id is timid, full of doubts, subdued and underwhelmed. It is the very opposite of what is supposed to be, as if it was infected by Stalker’s (super-ego) regulatory system. Writer refuses to enter the Room because he’s afraid of confirming his own unworthiness. He betrays the most important trait of the creative artist: his imagination.
Professor, on the contrary, does not harbour doubts to what he has to do. He is as arrogant as a fanatic. The ego, which operates according to the reality principle, takes a turn here into the pragmatic road. He wants to turn reason against reason. As he realises that his plan to bomb the Zone, that source of power and knowledge, is futile, he descends even more into his own cynicism. Instead of acquiring self-confidence through knowledge, Professor ends up disillusioned. Similar to Stalker, who has been carrying Porcupine’s fate as his own for some time now. Porcupine, another stalker, is known to have committed suicide after having made a series of selfish choices. Thus, Stalker feels crippled. He who is supposed to be a guide to others, cannot even guide himself.
Stalker, with its endless picture-perfect frames and hypnotic takes, can be watched several times and still maintain its ability to astonish. I suppose, Tarkovsky would avoid the need for rational explanations. There’s nothing we can say that cannot be said better by this masterwork’s powerful images.