Edgar Cochran’s review published on Letterboxd:
Slowly following the masterful filmography of the best Soviet director since Sergei M. Eisenstein, Stalker is the cinematic project we should encounter. This time, Tarkovsky leaves aside the strongly spiritual Russian Orthodox influence he applied in Andrey Rublyov (1966), the philosophical approach of the insignificant effect of the human being in the Universe he depicted in Solyaris (1972) and the patriotically nostalgic approach he used in Zerkalo (1975) for the sake of the Russian nation. The final result is quite possibly the most ignored precursor of the cyberpunk genre, engaging by its own merits and as ambitious as the questionings of the meaning and origin of life. Stalker is truly one of the first films of its kind, influential because of its technical aspects but never equaled because of its originality, apocalyptic vision and extreme philosophical depth, truths that ultimately remained unexplained. Moving from the physical size of the human being to its most primitive behaviors and reactions, such as curiosity, material and spiritual insatiableness, agnosticism and ambition, Stalker is a challenging piece of filmmaking at its finest form of stillness expression.
For making a brief description of the plot, the most basic question is originated: What is a stalker? We must first understand that the film is set in an apocalyptic and undetermined future, a time where the Zone is located. The Zone is a place which origins remain mysterious enough to awaken the curiosity of man. It is an alien place surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers. A stalker is a man who has been given the mental gift of illegally conducting people into the Room, a place located within the Zone where all wishes come true. Stalker tells the story of a man who, despite the several objections of his wife, decides to conduct a popular writer and a scientist to the Room, but a crisis will eventually ensue. Tarkovsky attracted the attention of the Cannes Film Festival once again in 1980, winning a very special award: the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury along with Krzysztof Zanussi's Constans (1980).
Undoubtedly, this is Andrei Tarkovsky's most ambitious film. His masterfulness and utopian brilliance prevented the film from falling into a vast realm of pretentiousness. Once more, Stalker is technical perfection at its most spellbinding, haunting and captivating form. Lengthy shots and perfectly balanced cinematography are the technique used by Tarkovsky in a much more noticeable way, sometimes surpassing the total time of 7 minutes for one single take. A color differentiation is utilized for distinguishing the unidentified city and the personal thoughts and flashbacks of the characters with a sepia tone, and the Zone with full, harmonic color. The camera placements and the editing justify such human cinematic perfection and psychologically prepare the audience for a philosophical, deep, complex, unexplainable, chaotic, epiphanic, cathartic, existentialist, slow-paced, ambitious and divine ride.
Stalker erases all human names and any possible identity. The stalker is Stalker. The writer is Writer. The scientist is Scientist. Stalker's wife is Stalker's Wife! Man is depicted not as a faceless entity, but as a primitive creature, reducing it to a living thing whose ego, pride and agnosticism leads him to question everything he sees, anything that can't be seen nor understood at first glance. Such stubborn attitude causes him to venture into the realm of the prohibited, of the mysterious. This basic and hard-to-direct premise immediately justifies the existence of a place that can grant any wish. The magic lamp is materialized into a desolated, ultimately cubic space. How does man can reach the magic lamp? What is the physical appearance of the lamp genius? How can man manipulate his supposed three wishes?
These means have never been clear and are naturally transformed into myths and tales of the popular culture. However, what happens if a master of cinema takes this longing disillusion of man and transforms it into a film which is an utter mix of fantastic genres? As a necessary consequence, the Zone, the only path to the Room, possesses a mathematical nature of its own. "The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish." Those two sentences are strictly told by the stalker, a man who cannot understand the supernatural nature of the Zone, yet understands the respect that it deserves to an extent of admiring it. Several possibilities of the origin of the Zone are explained, which remain irrevocably human. "It is a sign of life outside the planet." "It is God's punishment for mankind's present evil and maliciousness." "It was originated from a meteorite." These assumptions were originated from man. The Zone, with the Room as its "heart", is mainly depicted either as a living entity or as an inert place full of life. It has a conscience. It defies even any logic sense. Going straightforward is no longer going straightforward. It can also be implied that if you are not meant to reach the Zone, you will never reach it. God's will is an implicit factor when the film starts to resort to the Holy Bible, emphasizing the wrath of God interpreted through the eyes of the prophets and the words of David's Psalms.
Interestingly enough, Tarkovsky offers several clues throughout that could explain the origin of the Zone. A nearly four-minute shot emphasizes several objects underwater that could have been caused by an apocalyptic war. World War III, perhaps? Shortage of water or territorial conflicts could have been the actors behind the curtains once again. Perhaps we are even facing a scarily cinematic prediction of a future that patiently waits to unleash a catastrophe, such as Metropolis (1927), a movie that demonstrated a society completely ruled by totalitarian control, industrialization and technology, characteristics of modern real life.
This film is as relative as philosophy itself. The conclusion of the film illustrated with Ludwig van Beethoven's Ode to Joy, an ending scene which I will not even dare to mention here, could be compared with several things, from the humanization of the robots and androids shown in films (like Metropolis ) to the early events mentioned in the book of Genesis, when angels and demons procreated monstrous beings. It is like remaking the same event or idea several times throughout the pass of the decades. Although a stalker still remains human, it surpasses the human race with a single mental ability. After all, Martha has a name. She is not Stalker's Daugher, although she is, but she is Martha, who she really is as well. Is she a new beginning for the human race? Is she determining our fate, or our future mental and physical capacities? Is she a human being, or an anomaly, a mistake of nature? Is the Zone a place that originates hallucinations in a person, like a mental drug? Is it also an anomaly and a mistake of nature?
A film that creates more questions than answers, Stalker is one of the most ambitious works of art in motion picture history. It is also one of the most influential. This is Tarkovsky's last humanly-perfect masterpiece that uses the science-fiction genre as a perfect excuse for enlightening both the beauty of cinema and the vastness of the human mind. The Zone is just the quiet motor that symbolizes the rabbit hole. Perhaps that is why the film is not completely considered as a cyberpunk film. It surpasses any film of the genre. Masses applauding Alien (1979) as one of the best films (if not the best film) of the genre will be mentally challenged and inevitably bored by this visual treat, a call to intellectualism and a staggering approach to the usefulness of human existentialism, including the meaning of believing in God. If you ever think Monkey is a symbolic name, you are absolutely correct...