Stalker ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts." —Andrei Tarkovsky on Stalker

Not many people have seen "Stalker" because it is Russian and at first glance, it looks black and white. But, it isn't. This is one of THOSE movies. You know the ones: come up in every conversation, is on every "must see" list, is referenced and quoted in every essay. It's also very good and very deserving of its attention. It is a hauntingly beautiful movie. 

Taking its inspiration from an Eastern bloc sci-fi novel entitled The Roadside Picnic by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, "Stalker" is a film that literally typifies Andrei Tarkovsky's approach to film-making. Mysterious, personal, elliptical, beautiful, philosophical, disturbing, inspiring – all at the same time. But there are two factors above all others that make this film truly a work of genius. Firstly, if Tarkovsky ever intended the audience to glean one specific interpretation of his film he never shows his cards, thereby inviting every individual viewer to undergo an experience vastly different from the person sitting next to them. Stalker is one of those rare films that replays and resonates in your mind long after it has finished. I am still haunted by images from this film.

In a small, unspecified country, there exists a Zone where the laws of science and logic cease to hold true. The Zone was formed following a meteorite strike (or possibly a celestial visitation). Now, the border of the Zone is continually patrolled by armed guards with instructions to prevent anyone from entering. And there are plenty of people who WOULD like to enter, for rumours abound that at the centre of the Zone lies a Room where innermost wishes can be granted. Stalker (Aleksandr Kajdanovsky) makes a living by smuggling people into the Zone and guiding them through its hazardous landscape to the Room. His wife (Alisa Frejndlikh) has grown to detest his frequent absences on such dangerous jobs, more so because while he is away she must tend to their daughter Monkey (Natasha Abramova), physically disabled yet in possession of telekinetic powers due to her father's exposure to the Zone. Stalker finds himself taking two new "customers" into the Zone – Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn), who wishes to find fresh inspiration, and Professor (Nikolai Grinko), who claims to be fascinated by the scientific mysteries within the Zone, but is in fact on a secret mission to blow it up in order to prevent the potential for an evil person to have their darkest wishes granted at the Room.

Tarkovsky presents the outer world as an impoverished, litter-strewn dump, shot in endlessly dull sepia colours, while the scenes based in the Zone are filmed in striking colour to emphasis the lush greenery. But he also makes the Zone seem permanently dangerous, with Kajdanovsky uttering cryptic warnings about its ever-changing pathways and wearing furtive, fearful expressions upon his face all the time they are there. By having his camera more often than not positioned at some distance from the characters, Tarkovsky makes the audience feel like spies and this in turn creates paranoid suspense, as if the three main characters are continually being watched by some unknown force. In the film's stunning climax, Stalker assumes messianic characteristics - he breaks down in tears and laments the fact that nobody he has taken to the Room has fulfilled their dreams. "Nobody believes. Nobody! Who am I going to take there? Oh, God… And what's most awful is that no-one needs it. No-one needs that room, and all my efforts are just in vain". Like Jesus, Stalker is trying to convince people that they MUST have faith…. Tarkovsky's shattering conclusion is that he cannot win in the face of a cynical society, but the one redeeming fact is that his daughter's amazing powers may give her strength to succeed where her father has not. This is challenging, essential cinema. 

Sure, it's really arty and a bit on the slow side, but if you have the patience, Stalker could very well be one of the most effective film going experiences you'll ever have. Despite obvious parallels to The Wizard of Oz, Tarkovsky's film is devoid of special effects or any fantastical elements typically associated with science fiction or fantasy. Instead, Stalker makes astonishing use of sound and bleak-but-beautiful imagery to envelope the viewer into the eerie atmosphere of The Zone and the dank, colorless landscape that surrounds it. And while the film's glacial pacing may be off-putting to some viewers, there's no denying that Stalker has a mesmerizing power of its own, including a thought-provoking and highly debatable ending that propels the film to a higher level of meaning and significance. Visually unforgettable, this is possibly Tarkovsky's finest work.

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