David Wallace’s review published on Letterboxd:
In-the-zone (adjective) : in a mental state of focused concentration on the performance of an activity, in which one dissociates oneself from distracting or irrelevant aspects of one’s own environment.
The Zone is the destination for these figures, serving as a site of potential promise for those civilians hopelessly dissatisfied with their environment. This abandoned, quarantined venue is fraught with danger and uncertainty; they who have passed into its realm have rarely returned to reveal the secrets of their unique visit. The visitors are guided through the terrain by an experienced forager of parts unknown (collectively known as stalkers), persons who have assumed an entire monopoly over the illegal transaction of payments to enter within this uninhabited area. Or, indeed, they have been directly affected by the mystical allure from past voyages and crave an obsessive appetite to keep returning to a place that gives them access to an unbounded feeling that is unmatched in their normal daily lives. Nobody is allowed in or out of the Zone, but with tales akin to the fabled city of El Dorado there exists a determined few dead set on getting there. It is fiercely patrolled by the government with round-the-clock armed enforcers unafraid to shoot on sight for those curious as to what lies beyond the perimeter boundary. The sentry fear the entry point themselves and are unlikely to venture after any person who succeeds in sneaking their way through. The film’s director, Andrei Tarkovsky, opens his masterful work with a scrolling intertitle enhancing the mysterious nature of the Zone, with unconfirmed suggestive evidence that it was the site of an alien species’ arrival to our planet, and somewhere inside of this location is the Room, a specific place which promises any occupant the opportunity to have their deepest wish realised and manifested in that moment. The trouble for many is that getting to and from the Zone is child’s play compared to surviving the interior membranous labyrinth struggle for equilibrium. As one character astutely opines: ‘The Zone is a very complicated system of traps and they’re all deadly.’ The hidden enemy is a most frightening proposition.
David Jenkins muses upon the film’s emanation as an ‘existential parable of life being worthless without the alluring mystery of its essence’ since it is lodged ‘during a politically indistinct future where mankind appears in dwindling shape.’ The early scenes in the film condenses the bleak prospects sharply through Tarkovsky’s fondness for visual imagery, with this ‘emphasis on landscape, texture and atmosphere, argues the film critic J. Hoberman, presenting a brooding, dystopian science fiction’ that ‘is as much environment as movie.’ The movie feels so tactile that we could reach out and touch its negative ecosystem. For example, consider the frequent images of murky water in streams within the Zone with bubbling pollutants and barely visible waste remnants that are pregnant with symbolism (the ‘coruscating filth’ as put by commentator Tim Brayton). This is a dystopian environment with ‘dilapidated industrial spaces’ and ‘overgrown fields and forests’ comments Mark Olsen, summing up the entire landscape as an ‘abandoned wasteland.’ Our introduction to the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is a lengthy passage developing his intention to return once again to the Zone with some new followers, and this earns him the irate scorn of his wife, played by Alisa Freindlich in a noteworthy supporting role. When she accepts that her concerns are falling on deaf ears, she drops to the kitchen floor in a fit of anguish so intense that a mixture of pain and pleasure appears to be a by-product of the frenzied, emotional state. The Stalker will later concede that he is a louse, unable to do any good in the domestic reality he is confined to or to be of any societal value to anyone. His presence in the coordinates of the Zone is a catalyst to spark an internal vitalogy and a self-assured conviction that, beyond survival in the harshest environment, he has found a semblance of self-worth.
"Stalker" was a concoction loosely gathered from the novel "Roadside Picnic" written by sibling collaborators Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, although Tarkovsky’s adaptation represents an insurgence of new material with a greater focus on mysticism and metaphysics. Despite the original authors adapting their work for the new medium, it is fair to judge the film translation as merely inspired by an embryonic text and one need not engage with the novel before seeing the motion picture. We are uncertain of this Zone to a much greater extent in the film: was it a cover-up by the Soviet government to conceal a nuclear disaster (the movie preempted the Chernobyl nuclear accident by seven years, yet that event eerily haunts a contemporary viewing with this paratextual knowledge), or is an area of alien force incubating in an unknowable ecosystem? There may even be value to speculation that more than one quarantined Zone could exist. We are left in a state of limbo as to the Zone’s supernatural ability; a quiet, cautious belief in a supernatural phenomena is countered by a nagging sense that the unhinged state of a character’s mind could be transforming a completely natural environment, uncontaminated by man-made pollution, into a sinister land of nature’s uncontrolled wrath. Government collusion as the source of blame for the ‘psychological booby traps’ set out along the path cannot be overlooked either.
I believe Tarkovsky’s mission with this feature was to infer all scenarios plausibly by invigorating a spectator’s interest in the very essence of images, words and ideas for their own sake alone as these humans traverse the untouched nature. Randolph Jordan assumes the former reading by calling the Zone ‘a constantly shifting geography... that requires an expert to navigate successfully.’ The Stalker will repeatedly assert his demand for the guest entrants to continuously respect this environment in a humble manner. Brayton notes how the Zone exists as ‘a pocket of quasi-reality where the rules of the universe are different’ and this is underpinned by the perceptive positing from Christopher Machell that ‘the dull geometric rules of reality do not apply.’ Little wonder that such boundless limits should entice and ensnare repeat offenders in search of a transcendental experience of escapism away from the overly familiar malaise of reality. Film critic John Semley witnesses the quality of existence outside of the Zone and is left with a woeful portrait of this unnamed, decimated town, ‘which, with its crumbling brick facades and long ramparts of chain link fencing, all rendered in drab sepia tones, looks like an abandoned outpost in Solzhenitsyn’s conceptual gulag archipelage.’ Three men will be seen standing around an isolated table at the loneliest bar in the world; dilapidated as if the victim of bomb attacks and the very tactile texture of that decrepit location allows the sense of rotting mould and damp walls to penetrate a viewer’s nervous system. This is an economically deceased town.
Watching any Tarkovsky film, and in particular this one, it is very clear to gather a complete disconnect from the creator to offer an audience pandering production, with the overall thrill levels feeling highly detached from a viewer’s relative expectations. Semley highlights the drastic initiative by explaining how ‘the very idea of making a movie boring feels radical’ because movies themselves are widely believed to be ‘antidotes to boredom.’ He appreciates that a sense of feeling bored is nothing to be sniffed at in this film and that to categorise it in this manner is ‘less of an insult or dismissive descriptor than a point of obstinate pride’ and we must surrender ourselves completely to its debunked rendering of clockwork time. Semley: ‘Tarkovsky wants the viewer to encounter boredom in itself, as an experience, a condition and a state of mind. Because it is from boredom and inattention that greatness springs.’ Perhaps such an artistic achievement will leave some viewers underwhelmed and disappointed by the lack of gripping action and shocking plot twists, yet personally I have found "Stalker" to improve with each engagement as I focus less on the foreground narrative and instead revel in its background composition. Mark Olsen sets out the constant thrust present in the dramatic storytelling procedure as ‘moments of brief, decisive action that interrupt the long conversations.’ If the spectator is unwilling to get into the proverbial *zone* of a transfixed mindset, then the movie is unlikely to do much other than aggravate their loss of interest. Consider the sequence where the trio travel towards the Zone and into a shift of colour palette, with ‘the rhythmic clickety-clack of the railway hypnotically eroding all sense of time’ (Machell) as the ‘vehicle struggles to find traction’ (Olsen). Brayton perceptively notes how this rhythmic noise sound is not only eroding a sense of time but is gifting a ‘forward momentum on the static image.’ The static images that Tarkovsky adores to linger upon enhance the atmosphere of an active registering with the surrounding environment.
The long conversations are a three-pronged dialogue between the Stalker and the two men who have requested his expertise in guiding them through the Zone. As many have noted, their real names are unknown and they are referred to only by the vocational nouns Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko) to radiate their chosen professions. The Writer is grappling for inspiration within the Zone and to achieve a flowing stream of creativity in his talent to form language, while the Professor is plunged deep in the analysing of the Zone on purely scientific grounds, and is eager to present an effective case study on the unexplored area with only fact-based evidence. Whether their true motivations are as honourable as the surface explanations remains to be seen. It is the Stalker who requests that they should not get to know one another on a personal level. According to Anton Bitel these anonyms are ‘used to conceal identity, but also to mark their archetypal nature in a film whose strange spaces are always tinged with broader allegorical import.’ Brayton indicates that the Professor stands for reason, the Writer for emotion, and the pitiful Stalker seeks redemption. He outlines how Tarkovsky’s penchant for close shots to each individual’s head offers ‘an extraordinary mixture of textures that make the three men all have surprisingly different weight, given their similarities.’ Kate Muir, for instance, regards the Stalker as ‘a pale man with a geometrically furrowed brow who looks as if he has already been through a nuclear holocaust.’ The enigmatic shots of the men from the side and back of their heads is at once poetic, symbolic and reaches its apex as the men lie down by the stream as a stray dog gathers around to inspect the outsiders. There, motionless, the magnitude of their small importance in the surrounding environment is heightened, and for a brief moment their craniums make a worthy companion piece to the forgotten artefacts lost within the Zone’s expanding nature, with only the dog taking sporadic interest in the waste.
The contrast in the aesthetic schemes upon entry to the Zone is graspable in the way Kansas City makes way for the Emerald City in "The Wizard of Oz." The exterior world is coated with an ‘inhumane amber-tinted monochrome footage’ (Brayton) that strongly suggests such a poisonous, toxic air quality that it would be rather challenging for the Zone to feature a worse decayed, putrefied land. Indeed the rich vegetation colours of the Zone are initially endearing as a counterpoint to the ‘drab sepia tones’ (Semley) as we wallow in the ‘primordial beauty’ (Brayton) of nature in its untouched, rightful place. The Stalker pleads for his followers to show faith and trust in his mannered techniques ‘while taking an irrationally circuitous route towards the Room that will confront them with their innermost selves,’ explains Bitel. This includes his persistent launching of metal nuts in the direction of possible travel as an exercise to test the gravitational stability ahead - while confusion does reign, there is never a regression to helter skelter leadership. The entire Zone is used, explains Machell, as a ‘physical space to externalise psychological experience.’ At one point the wearily ill-disciplined Writer demands to break the distal route and move directly towards the endpoint. A Voice-of-God announcement is heard commanding the individual to retreat backwards, and the intervening disembodied discourse leaves all the men bewildered. Machell posits that the Zone’s peculiar form is a triumph of ambivalence whereby it ‘claims its victims by entangling the roots of their rigid adherence to objectivity,’ and because Tarkovsky does not explicitly show such space shifting he instead is ‘inviting the audience to participate in the Zone’s mutability with their own febrile imaginations,’ thus mitigating against severe impressions of quasi-illusions.
The film has some tense moments, such as when the trio barely escape past the gunfire barricades, but they are precipitated by languid moments that would feel anti-climatic in a traditional linear narrative with elapsed editing cuts - at one stage the characters all lie down to sleep and that shocking revelation is the plot development (James Beradinelli finds this deliberate pacing of a literal somnambulist as somewhat elitist). Brayton astutely assesses this style of filmmaking. He articulates how the ‘default state is a wide shot... for a very long time’ in a method to engross the viewer with the singular static image. The camerawork is ‘sometimes very still, but generally involves a good amount of staging in depth, as the three men move around each, ceding prominence and then trying to grab it back.’ Tarkovsky loves to incorporate track-in/push-in camera movements, rather than the more standard zoom-in technique, and it is implemented for a solid, meticulous reason. Brayton gives the following example of the ‘slow, deliberate camera movement, as the very gradual track-in towards the three men gathered around a table in the bar... one that stops in the middle, as though unsure if it wants to get any closer to them.’ I am reminded of the camera placement in "The Exterminating Angel" where it looks back to the dinner guests behind the limen and is willing to keep its distance. Bitel asserts that Tarkovsky’s ‘meandering camera often becomes a quasi-numinous presence in itself, tracking the dietrius of the characters’ subconscious, and alone entering the Room to look back at the threshold where the men hesitate.’ He also notes how this ‘shot is matched in the film’s coda... three men sat in the bar looking out the door/to the camera.’ The meaning of such shots insinuates the troubling realisation that what might wait beyond the point of no return is a grass that is only greener from the current perspective, and dramatically the onus is on entertaining multiple spectator theories.
The sound design assembling is an invaluable component in "Stalker." Brayton listens to the moments of silence that are never truly silent (like the train track journey), expounding how habitually the film’s narrative stops cold by ‘letting us soak in the atmosphere of the moment, and it frequently does this in part by piping in sound effects.’ Such noise on the soundtrack is blurred between diegetic and non-diegetic boundaries, and is a productive way of enhancing the film’s theme of environmentalism. Even the movie’s score composed by Eduard Artemyev concurs to this ambivalent construction - the use of a synthesiser is in direct harmony with various instruments manipulated for their sound properties, giving the instrumental effect of natural sounds and noises colliding indistinguishably. Semley asks us to consider when the Stalker ‘prays for the pliancy necessary to make it through his journey, he looks not towards the heavens but down into a well, into the depths of the earth itself.’ This is an interesting observation, for the Stalker’s entire sense of self-worth depends upon his followers reciprocation of belief in his instructions and to invest in the Zone’s notorious reputation without cynically denying it to be a complete sham and unworthy of such holy genuflection. In this land, the very ground contains the immanence of a god-like force. ‘Human consciousness and attitudes shapes physical reality - or at least the shifting landscapes and expanding, contracting accordion temporality of the Zone,’ suggests Semley. This logic poses a tantalising question as to whether the distortions experienced in the Zone are all internal manifestations. For example, when the Professor refuses to continue the trek without his lunch bag, the Stalker and following Writer end up returning to the last location of the bag where they find the Professor seated and contentedly consuming the food. The Stalker’s very earnest rhetoric indicates that the Zone purposefully led them backwards as a spellbinding trick, yet there is room to interpret it as the Stalker’s own inner conscience that no man should be left behind under his watch in an abdication of responsibility, which ultimately aligned them along an even more convoluted, circuitous route.
No such space is this shaping of physical reality exacerbated than in the so-called meat grinder in which the Writer unwittingly enters of his own accord to the harrowing dismay of the Stalker. Machell describes it ‘rendered as a grey undulating desert, a terrifying vision of human consciousness; shifting, duplicitous, and ultimately, doomed to entropy.’ The Writer is forced to encounter himself internally at the deepest level of consciousness. Is it in this moment that his self-loathing personality understands that his good intentions to use the Room’s mystical powers for good are doomed to be a double-edged sword of intolerable suffering? The Stalker consistently refers to his master Porcupine - never seen in the film - who taught him the Zone’s fragile exploration tightrope, and suddenly ended up committing suicide after becoming very rich as a beneficiary of the Room’s magic. The apprentice is clearly haunted by this event, determined that he should never himself visit the Zone with an ulterior agenda, informing his companions that the role of the Stalker is to be a selfless tour guide aiding others in their quest for a greatest wish. As Brayton discusses in his invaluable essay on the film, once on the precipice of self-enlightenment will the seekers ultimately choose to walk through the threshold? The potential destruction of one’s carefully constructed self-image could strip away the ego and such a fate could be a devastating penalty for those who are hindered in their enlightenment by delusions of false positivism.
As the threesome (personifying faith, science and art) stand on that precipice preparing themselves to confront that fear head on, there is a gradual admittance as to certain intentions that were never expressed earlier in the expedition. The Professor declares his goal was never to utilise the wish consummation of the Room but to act as a human sacrifice to remove this unknown entity forever. Meanwhile the Writer, who has been spooked by the previous meat grinder experience, questions why he would continue as a scribe if the Room assures him of greatness, since writers often turn to their craft to prove to themselves they can contribute something of value during moments of doubt. Neither science nor art remain concrete concepts faced by a nebulous sapience. Tarkovsky allows the film ample time to develop convincing counter-arguments to these homily topics, and every viewer will no doubt question the virtue of such quests and critique the temptation to damn one man’s desire to remove a place that brings fleeting joy to the life of another man so detached from all probable sources of happiness in his home life. This alludes to what the scholar Jordan assesses as the contact between the soul and the external world to the body, and he proposes that ‘the Room is the physical structure prompt for the men to mediate on the division between their innermost selves,’ a dividing line between the security of the soul and the fear of an external punitive where ‘the true nature of their darkest souls will be revealed to the world with terrible consequences.’ The whole orchestration of this segment works like a deconstruction of knife-edge suspense. Neither paying guest chooses to enter the Room to put a bow on their metaphysical odysseys, assimilating that it is too dangerous a leap of faith to conclude their mission. The film’s climax is a stunning shot from a camera placement inside the Room as the observers sit watching it fill up with heavy floods of water dripping in symbolism; the Room now in parallel with the rivers of the Zone by washing over the flotsam and jetsam of past entrants’ remnants. One enduring image is of some oil percolating in the clear water, with parts of a human detonation device and some small fish swimming blissfully unaware captured in the visual.
Tarkovsky does present us with a book-ended return to the non-Zone world, where the Stalker’s wife arrives at the bar as the three men appear aesthetically unable to venture themselves back into the exterior locations. The Stalker is on the verge of an existential breakdown due to the profound assessments articulated on the cusp of his revered Room, and this completes and confirms his character’s challenging arc ‘from a petty post-apocalyptic flimflammer to a deeply spiritual wayfarer’ (Semley). He appreciates that he can no longer pursue his affection with the Zone if his witnesses will not join him on a deeply spiritual level - to continue hollowly just to make money is barely even an afterthought - and is still reeling from the tense confrontation that barely saved his heaven from annihilation. We see this memorable sequence of the Stalker walking alongside his wife on a makeshift beached area beside the river, with his daughter Martiska (Natasha Abramova) perched on top his shoulders and the backdrop of industrial environment pollution rising upwards in the background. Specks of snow-like residue is falling all around but the realism of the weather condition is to be doubted (see my next paragraph). Ultimately the film separates itself from imitations like Alex Garland’s "Annihilation" (2018) due to its restraint on definitive alien presence and by being, as Hoberman noted, more a philosophical environmental warning of how humans destructively interact with natural ecosystems. As Jordan insightfully reminds his readers: ‘The film is a metaphor for ecological containment,’ and it is not coincidental that the permanent contamination from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster should be be referred to as the Zone of Absolute Exclusion. This film offers some wisdom for the illegal adventures to Chernobyl in the aftermath, in that human curiosity is piqued by a yearning to know what is going on beyond restricted limits. Chernobyl was declared safe for visitors twenty five years later, and the morbid fascination could propel a cottage industry of tourism.
"Stalker" is unquestionably a worthy apotheosis in the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, one of those celluloid masters who created films that were entirely unique rather than glorious imitations of past accomplishments, and is thus granted a venerable respect for his contributions to a form of pure cinema. If this is indeed the greatest of all his staggering art, it comes drenched with an unfortunate context of life mirroring art, for consistent speculation has swirled that the filmmaker, his wife Larisa Tarkovskaya and actor Anatoly Solonitsyn all died from bronchial cancer linked to the film, which was highly likely contracted from the shooting locations near a half-functioning hydroelectric plant. As Brayton spoke of the importance to the imagery of ‘the river and its floating plumes of sensuously coruscating filth’ and other shots of swirling dust/debris in the air that moonlights like snow in non-seasonal weather but is actually a form of poison, the paratext confirms the overriding belief that, yes, this boxed world where the Stalker is trapped is inextricably an environmentally harmful place. Martiska (aka Monkey) is condemned for being a genetic mutant offspring of a father infected by the Zone. Even if you question whether her disability is a blessing of a higher power - as captured in that extraordinary final scene - one has to acknowledge consent to a reasonable degree that her genetics have been disrupted by the very industrial conditions right in front of her home. Observe the opening sequence once more with the glass shaking seemingly by a passing train, and think as Juli Kearns does about ‘the unlikelihood of the passing train causing the glass to move while every other object remains fixed.’ No child should have to be raised among heavy industrial pollutants, with the likelihood of a Zone expansion decimating the last frontier an innocent child knows as their supposedly safe haven. Monkey's body may have mutated to defend herself from the invisible enemy but the glass is always being forced to the edge of no return, and the camera is already placed beyond the threshold prepared for a watershed happening.
Also in my collection: Tarkovsky's "Mirror"
For all the titles in my great movies collection: letterboxd.com/davidwallace/list/great-movies-collection/