John Barlow’s review published on Letterboxd:
Always satisfying to revisit one of the greatest films of all time. I kept thinking about this film while I was re-watching Alien (which was first released on the exact same day that Stalker was, coincidentally enough) due to some superficial similarities (both have a similar rhythm and their respective characters go on an expedition to an otherworldly Zone which only offers them a contagious threat). And as good as Alien is, I’ve always been partial to Science Fiction films that use as few ingredients as possible to create their worlds.
One ingredient of filmmaking that I wish more directors and viewers would focus on is how the performers move, since unlike theater (if film is “Sculpting in Time” as Tarkovsky dictates, theater is sandcastles of impressions that leave us physically when the waves come in), the actors’ movements is what viewers can return to, so you can’t just rely on impressions. Choreography and physicality is important in cinematic acting, and it could make or break a film, at least it can for me. While Tarkovsky’s alternation between color and sepia-tones to evoke the differences between the Zone and outside of it respectively do a lot to realize this world, watching his actors tentatively, and fearfully walk through this familiar yet alien world is what sells it for me. This was Tarkovsky’s and actor Anatoly Solonitsyn’s fourth (and final) collaboration together, and due to the confidence they had in each other; we get two very hypnotic moments of Solonitsyn walking through the unpredictable terrains of the Zone. Since Tarkovsky is very selective about showing us anything fantastical in the Zone, he has enabled the audience, along with the Writer and Professor, to imagine what horrors could happen if the rules aren’t followed. This allows these two simple scenes (on paper, they’re just showing someone walking) to be a lot tenser based on what is left out of the frame.
I think these moments are a good window into the angle that Tarkovsky was approaching the Sci-Fi genre through, which was to examine a world through a micro lens. To my understanding, I think the appeal of the genre to many of its fans is the ability to view the world it creates through a macro lens. For example, in the first Alien movie, even though it takes place mostly on a ship, it begins out in space where no living thing is present, and when we’re first introduced to the interior of the Nostromo, it’s when all the characters are asleep. By introducing the main settings that Alien will occupy through a God’s-eye view, it sets the tone for the audience that they should focus on what’s outside of the characters’ point of view, even if nothing is visible to the audience until they become so for the characters (e.g. Ash being an android).
By contrast, Stalker starts off in the bar that the Stalker, Writer, and Professor meet up at, and even though they aren’t there yet, the bartender is present, assuring the audience that the space we’re being introduced in is occupied by at least one human being. This introduction sets the tone that, no matter where the film takes its audience, it won’t abandon a character’s point of view that it’s been following. To bring it back to Alien, that film mostly takes place in areas occupied by human beings, but the perspective on the world is passed around between a considerable amount of characters. In the case of Stalker, apart from its prologue and epilogue, nothing in the film happens outside of the titular character’s point of view. Even in the scene when he’s napping with the Writer and Professor, it’s still within his line of sight so it doesn’t betray this micro viewing of the world that Tarkovsky gives us. The camera examines the world of the Zone while the characters aren’t cognitive of their surroundings and it gives us little bits and pieces, not the whole picture. There are coins, a gun, and a mural of Jesus in the water, and it’s not revealed if previous visitors left them there, or if they were there from the Zone’s inception.
However, this method of allowing us into this world through a micro lens isn’t just an experimental story-telling technique, it’s a result of the main essence of the film. As many have noted in regards to the film’s religious metaphors, the Stalker’s struggle could be seen as a believer trying to proselytize non-believers, but it’s not so intrinsic to the film’s whole that other interpretations couldn’t be applied. One could just as easily view it as a man of science trying to show a life-changing discovery to two intelligent, but pretentious and close-minded men clinging to older modes of knowledge that they’re stubbornly complacent with. You could even see the Stalker as the Roddy Piper character from They Live trying to put the glasses on the Writer and Professor to show them how much their government conceals information and access to certain powers and freedom that the Room could give them. No matter what, it’s all about the struggle to reveal the truth, whether it be theological truth, scientific truth, or political truth. Perhaps after making The Mirror, arguably the greatest film ever made, Tarkovsky felt like he discovered a cinematic truth and was frustrated when film theorists and critics at the time couldn’t see it, so he probably related to the struggles of the Stalker here. While Tarkovsky isn’t vying for a truth to be achieved through a myopic means and shutting others out, he is saying that the truth can only be achieved through an individual action. Others may show you the door, but only you can open it.
In other words, this is probably the greatest science-fiction film ever made; at least it’s at the top of my list.