Tears_in_Rain’s review published on Letterboxd:
This isn't really a review for Stalker so much as it is an attempt to explain why someone who spends 90% of their time watching 'trash' cinema would list this as one of their top 10 sci-fi films of all time. Flying in direct and deliberate opposition to all the lengthy attempts at objectively analyzing such films, I've crafted a lengthy subjective analysis instead. We all love the films we love for reasons which are unique to ourselves, which is something so many of us seem to forget. Because, if I love a film for personal reasons, and you hate that same film for personal reasons, then how can either of us be wrong? And yet, so many people like to tell others that their taste in films is somehow incorrect. I hope that by examining the weird mental journey that I took to arrive at the appreciation of this particular film, that perhaps someone out there will see just how subjective all of this really is, and thereby learn to respect the opinions of others. So, here's a long, boring review, about why I like a long, boring movie.
I often get the urge to rotate my top 4 films, on my LB profile page, so that I could put up something that would be less confusing to newcomers. I always kind of chuckle to myself when I think of the contradictory impression that those 4 films must give people when they first stumble across my profile. I mean, if you were to check my LB stats page, my most watched genre is horror. And yet, there's only one horror film in my top 4, and that's only because I changed it at some point, replacing Sorcerer with Alien, because I felt like I needed at least one horror film in there. The thing is, I can't bring myself to change them. They really are my favorite films, and they all have something in common. They're all slower paced, meditative, aesthetically focused, atmospheric films. They're also representative of my main interests, namely sci-fi, horror, and Japanese history/culture. But, I have to imagine it's weird for people to check out my profile, see those 4 films, and then start to dig into some of my lists and reviews, only to find Godzilla marathons and 5-star reviews of Resident Evil movies. In fact, I get a lot of pretentious cinephile types, who follow me and then immediately unfollow me when they realize their mistake. But here's the thing. Those aren't actually as contradictory as they might seem, and I'm about to explain why.
See, I may love some artistic films, but I love them for all the wrong reasons. Or, at least, it started out that way. For example, I may love slow-burn atmospheric films like Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I watched those as a kid because I liked flying cars, robots, and spaceships. Then, because I watched them so many times, the aesthetic of those films imprinted itself on me. In addition to that, or possibly because of that, I'm also a very visually oriented person. I love art, and am the type of person who can get lost in a painting. I can spend hours just staring at pieces of art that I love, soaking in all the details. But again, while I may appreciate some fine art, my entry into art appreciation came by way of comic book art and the painted covers of pulpy sci-fi and fantasy novels, or posters for horror films. My favorite artists are guys like Frank Frazetta, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Mignola, and John Buscema when he's inked by Alfredo Alcala. I also love black and white cinematography, which is why I love films like Citizen Kane, but again, I love black and white cinematography because I grew up watching a lot of old black and white films, like the Universal Monster stuff, or Charlie Chaplin movies, or 50s sci-fi films, and I always loved the uncolored pen and ink art of some of the aforementioned artists. Essentially, the pulp tastes of my childhood evolved, but never really went away. I'm really just a 40-year-old kid, who still reads comics and watches goofy nonsense but, somewhere along the way, I learned to appreciate other things that grew out of those interests.
So, with that out of the way, we come to an explanation of why I love this really boring and pretentious Russian film for what are actually very silly and juvenile reasons. It all begins with a video game. See, I told you. I'm not really sophisticated at all. I just seem that way. However, while it began with a videogame, it's more complicated than that, but let's start there. Actually, let's go even further back than that. It really begins with Mad Max.
Road Warrior was one of those defining films for me as a kid, and it really got me into post-apocalyptic fiction in general. But, while I really dig the Mad Max movies, they don't represent my ideal post-apocalyptic aesthetic. That's something I came to later on, with the PC game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, released in 2007. But the game was just the beginning of an overall obsession for me. It was the gateway drug that turned me into a Chernobyl junkie. See, I had long been into anything related to post-apocalyptic or dystopian future settings at that point, but Chernobyl was a whole other kettle of fish. Unlike the settings in films such as Road Warrior or Escape from New York, Chernobyl is an actual post-apocalyptic environment that exists in the real world. It's not based on speculative notions about what such an environment would look like. It's the genuine article. We have an actual post-apocalyptic setting we can study, and study it I did. I became obsessed with watching videos of people illegally exploring abandoned buildings in Chernobyl which, in turn, led to an obsession with urbex (urban exploration), or urban spelunking as it was known at the time. I became seriously enamored of the aesthetic of urban decay. Old buildings rotting like decomposing corpses. There's something about exploring these rotting husks, that are slowly being reclaimed by nature, which ignites an intense fascination in me.
So, what the hell does all of this have to do with this long, boring Russian film? Well there's a couple of connections. You see, the aforementioned game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and the film Stalker share more than just a similar title. The game is actually inspired by the film, and both of them share a literary source in the novel, Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. Yeah, you read that correctly, there's an open-world FPS game that is based on a Russian art film from the 70s. There is, however, one key difference between the two, which is Chernobyl. Tarkovsky filmed Stalker before the Chernobyl disaster occurred, and yet the film is bizarrely prescient in that the "Zone" which much of the film takes place in, and is essentially a microcosm of a post-apocalyptic world, eerily resembles post-disaster Chernobyl. Furthermore, this is actually why the game is set in Chernobyl, because it basically provided a real-life version of the fictional setting from the book and the film. Chernobyl is the Zone!
So just what the hell is the Zone anyway? Well, the best way to describe it is to mention another film that clearly derived inspiration from Roadside Picnic, namely Annihilation, which involves an expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don't apply, and which is seemingly created by an extraterrestrial event. That's basically what the Zone is in Roadside Picnic as well, except that in the book it isn't a government-sanctioned expedition, involving scientists and soldiers. In the book, there is a prohibition against entry into the zone. However, "stalkers" are people who break this prohibition to enter the Zone illegally, kind of like people do in real life with Chernobyl, to find extraterrestrial artifacts. In the film, Stalker, the titular stalker acts more as a guide, taking people into the Zone, and the extraterrestrial nature of the Zone is left more ambiguous.
Now the film itself is a typical Tarkovsky film. It's a long, boring, deeply philosophical film, where very little happens, but it's achingly beautiful. I mean, most of the film is just 3 guys standing around having long philosophical conversations, interspersed with what looks like footage from a nature documentary, except it's a nature documentary that was filmed in a post-apocalyptic setting. And that, right there, is basically why I love this film. I don't watch it for the story, or the characters, or all the philosophical dialogue, though some of that appeals to me as well. I would watch this if it was entirely bereft of story and had no characters in it. I would watch this if it was just hours of beautifully filmed footage of the Chernobylesque Zone. In fact, someone could edit out all of the talking and crap and I'd just love this even more.
So, in summation, I'm a goddamn weirdo. But then, aren't we all?