Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly not known for making light films. Thus, it is no surprise that Stalker is a dense, complicated, and truly challenging film to unpack. Making sense of this film is likely as complex as a layman trying to decipher rocket science. Blending psychology, religion, philosophy, existentialism, and probably some cynicism into one complex web of a film, Tarkovsky's Stalker is a highly unconventional experience. On the surface, it could be rather straight-forward with it being a film about a unique piece of land that landed in Russia. Known as "the Zone", this area of the world is guarded closely by military troops and is believed to grant those who enter "the room" their inner most desire . With a Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) - a person who is a guide to "the Zone" - leading two men who wish to enter "the room" to their fate, the film is certainly slow and meditative, but is undeniably brilliant.
As a newcomer to Tarkovsky, it is only natural that I would seek parallels to my only prior foray into his filmography, Solaris. It is equally no surprise that the parallels are quite apparent. In that film, a spaceship nears a distant planet and, as it does, those on the ship begin to lose their minds and sense of reality. Stalker does not feature the same insanity, but certainly hints at it throughout, especially in its tale of Porcupine. A man who entered "the room", Porcupine wound up hanging himself a week later after being granted riches that no man had ever seen before. Fulfilling his innermost desire, Porcupine is distraught to learn how rich he became and is unable to overcome the way in which this has driven him to the brink of sanity. As with the planet in Solaris, the "room" in Stalker acts as a catalyst for driving people to the absolute brink of their mind and gives them items that or ideas that throw their world into absolute turmoil. In expressing their innermost desire, both the planet and the room never actually give people what they want, just what they desire subconsciously. For the protagonist in Solaris, this is his dead wife with frequent encounters with her driving him to lose touch with reality. In Stalker, it is realized in that story that, even if you want something desperately and ask "the room" to grant it to you, it will ignore your stated wishes and examine one's subconscious to extract the thing you wish for, but do not even know you want. For example, for parents, it could take away your children if, deep in your mind, you wish you and your spouse were alone. You may love your child more than life itself, but this one dissident thread of your subconscious imagines life without them. Should you enter "the room", it is possible that the wish that is granted takes away your child. In other words, it - much like the planet - is a risky bargain that can destroy your already unhappy life.
Thus, it is a difficult task for the Stalker. Knowing the terrain of "the Zone" comes at a premium with how things constantly change there to match the minds of those who enter. A difficult journey to "the room", the Stalker is tasked with guiding his charges to the place in which their innermost desire will be realized. In performing this task, they must be attuned to the soul and spirit of the person who asks. With the Zone killing those who are not absolutely unhappy in life, the Stalker must reject those who possess any measure of happiness. Additionally, though the place offers hope on the surface to those who seek it, he must reject those who make have nefarious and wicked desires lurking in their mind that they are barely aware of themselves. It is a challenging task and one that is playing the lottery for the Stalker. He arrives in "the Zone" with absolute hope that those he leads will get something that will make their life change for the better, but there is the overwhelming likelihood that it will ruin their life and render them wholly incapable of living any longer.
Thus, it is no surprise that the film is steeped with religious and philosophical considerations. Perhaps the most overt of the former comes as the men are nearing the room. The Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) puts on a crown of thorns and begins to walk forward. Both he and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) are essentially sacrificial lambs being led to the slaughter by the Stalker. Both the Writer and the Professor have hopes for a better future as a result of going into "the room", but slowly learn that it may not possess what they seek and may end up worsening their already bleak situations. Yet, nonetheless, they walk forth until the very end. Their sacrifice will not quite be like Jesus' due to its limited impact, but it nonetheless would inspire hope and cause for celebration should they have a positive experience and gain something good in their lives. They could, however, be like any number of other men who were sacrificed and forced to wear a crown of thorns: inconsequential, nearing death, and given an even worse break in their already miserable lives.
Yet, in discussing these items, it is nonetheless obvious that this is just one surface layer of Stalker. There is a lot bubbling under the surface that is hard to decipher, even when Tarkovsky makes some more obvious to see than others. In this arena, the film switches between two filters. The film opens with a sepia-filtered opening and first act only to change subtly at some point when the men enter the "zone" to full color. Alternating between both throughout the second and third acts, it is unclear on an initial viewing what this means. Both look gorgeous to be clear, but this alternating gives the sepia tones a dream-like and old school feeling compared to the bleak reality found in full color. The true meaning behind them is likely beyond the surface, but would require multiple viewings to really put together.
A deeply existential film, many of those who go to the "zone" seek some sense of purpose or meaning to their lives. Unfortunately, they find the exact opposite. However, in displaying this mission towards the very center of one's conception of self, it is only natural that the film is laced with classic Tarkovsky elements. Letting the camera just float through scenes and linger long after characters have moved on or just sit there in absolute silence, Tarkovsky captures the mood and allows it really ease onto the audience. It never rushes through any scene, no matter how innocuous, and miraculously never drags. Tarkovsky cuts when he absolutely intends to cut and includes scenes he absolutely feels are necessary. As a result, the film may be slow and long, but it is never boring or feels overlong. It is appropriately paced for the mood and feeling of the film, while including enough details and information to make the film watchable and thought-provoking. For this reason, Stalker is not a film that eludes definition. Instead, it is just a challenging one, but one where Tarkovsky gives the audience everything they need to unlock the secrets to this film.
In many ways, the film's existentialism could also be deeply religious in nature. If, per say, "the Zone" were to represent Heaven or religion as an earthly concept, Stalker's repeated religious references and imagery would make additional sense. Seeking out those who are desperately seeking fulfillment and purpose, religion often attracts those who are unhappy for they are not prideful. Those who are happy can often write off their happiness as to being of their own doing without any need for God whatsoever. Those who are unhappy blame themselves and seek God's help to be able to overcome this darkness that envelopes them. This would explain why, in the Stalker's experience, only those with absolute unhappiness are able to enter "the Zone" and "the room". Without this element, the person often dies before they even get close via any variety of methods. Often times, as demonstrated, it is one's pride and hubris that convinces them they can ignore the Stalker and blaze their own path to enlightenment. Those who are unhappy are likely to doubt themselves and their thoughts more than one is happy, thus they are likelier to not try to accomplish this nearly impossible task on their own. For both the Writer and the Professor, they dance with death in "the Zone" and are put in situations that are certain to kill them, but their overwhelming unhappiness and desire to find purpose in their life via "the Zone" renders these as mere warnings. In a religious sense, this can be seen as God sparing those who err from the path of righteousness with nothing more than a scare or slap on the wrist. A message to change and intended to awaken one from the sin-induced slumber, it is something to avoid and one the Stalker warns his charges to take heed of at the risk of losing their lives. If this possible reading of the film works, then it would stand to reason that the Stalker would be a sort of guardian angel, guiding the Writer and the Professor to either Heaven or Hell, depending on how they had lived their life until then dependent upon their "most secret desire". Here, this is not a desire, but what rests within one's own soul. What rests there within the inner depths of a human and beyond their own conscious understanding is what determines what is awaiting them beyond the pearly gates and is what is awaiting them in "the room".
With Stalker, Tarkovsky has created a wholly unique cinematic experience. Thrilling the audience with mystery, excitement, and pure cinematic exhilaration, the film equally manages to be a thought-provoking and contemplative experience. At the prospect of watching a Tarkovsky film, one may balk due to how slow it will undoubtedly be as a film. Stalker is slow, but it never bores or drags. It is deliberately paced and moving any faster would have cheapened the final product. Taking its time to progress through this imaginative and truly high-concept science fiction world, Stalker remains a cinematic achievement and truly great film.