Jonathan White’s review published on Letterboxd:
I’m a bit over the moon here, as it’s not often when one of your favourite films is displaced. In this case, Tarkovsky’s own Solaris. I absolutely adored Solaris for its humanistic take on the hard Sci-Fi nugget of illusion and projection. While I haven’t seen the interceding Mirror, which I’ve seen here has lots of love, it almost seems like Stalker is a follow up fuck-you to Stanley Kubrick. Solaris had a humanistic take on great sci-fi questions, although it was less grand is scope compared to Kubrick’s masterpiece. Here, Tarkovsky matches Kubrick in grand scope and interpretation.
This film is impossible to interpret on a single viewing, so I’m just going to register some first takes and let it percolate further. Maybe on a future re-watch; although I’ve seen 2001 more than 70 times and still can’t bring myself to write a proper review.
Right off the bat, I’ll have to say that I’ve only seen two Tarkovsky’s. Solaris was chock-a-block full of philosophical discussion, but cinematography wasn’t its greatest strength. Not to say it was lacking, but rather that it wasn’t outstanding in this respect. When we first rolled Stalker, I was floored. I thought I was watching a Tarr film. Texture and depth were off the scale. In the early ‘bed’ scene, the use of dual colour grading for the background and bed was ethereal and foreboding. I have a quandary here. To achieve this, it looked like the bed set was matted. The bed jumped, like film registration jump, against the background, yet at times it didn’t. I really can’t tell if this was deliberate or a technical artifact, but whichever, the effect was positively spooky. The fact that Tarkovsky had camera movements and focus pulls in the same scene further baffles me. Much like watching the pen floating and flight attendant walking upside down in 2001.
Tarkovsky, brilliantly, uses mystery to forward the plot, and keeps this mystery alive throughout the entire runtime. We don’t really know anything about The Zone, we don’t really know why it’s dangerous. We don’t really know, except in the most oblique descriptions, how it came to exist and why it’s so highly guarded. We only know that it can possibly provide the greatest fulfillment, or maybe the greatest sacrifice. We also don’t know the motivations of The Writer and The Professor for why they want to make this journey. Likewise, we don’t know why The Stalker continues to be compelled to take the risk.
What I think is brilliant about Stalker is that there are so many ways to interpret it, and every interpretation could be validly argued. Despite my better judgement, I’m going to make some cursory observations. While I’m not a religious man, religious enlightenment is the first thing that jumped out at me. The Professor ( reason ) and the Writer ( emotion ) seek the answer, without being completely clear in their own minds on what the question is. They have their convictions, but are unaware of the difficulty of the journey to find what their own questions are, let alone the answers. Their guide, The Stalker, sees the journey as his redemption .. a redemption from what we never know.
The journey to grace is not a straightforward path. It isn’t the easiest route. It requires self examination and stripping away ego and self. When we stand at the precipice of enlightenment, the question is, do we really want to know? Will complete knowledge destroy our self image? Should total enlightenment be attainable by mere mortals?
In the end, is enlightenment all around us, and we simply can’t see it? Stalker will be an enigma for years and years to me. Unravelling it is the journey.