Zack Mosley’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Roadside Picnic", the novel by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, boasts one of the great concepts in all of science fiction literature. The book is set in the years following an extraterrestrial Visitation that has scarred the face of the earth with mysterious "Zones". The Visitors are never glimpsed or understood, and the Zones are littered with strange phenomena and dangerous artifacts that puzzle the human population. "Stalkers" enter the Zones illegally to remove these artifacts and sell them on the black market. The book is broken into four sections, and in the third section a scientist named Valentin poses a thought-provoking metaphor to describe the true nature of the Zones:
"Imagine a picnic... Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car drives off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out of the car carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Gas and oil spilled on the grass. Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around. Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind. Oil slicks on the pond. And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow... A roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos."
The implication of Valentin's metaphor is that humanity—with all of our grand notions of prominence in the larger cosmic order—are akin to the ants that emerge in the wake of a picnic to feast on the discarded garbage of a much more advanced civilization. Albeit pessimistic, this metaphor is to me the most profound thought that I have uncovered in the hundreds of science fiction books that I have read in my lifetime (227 science fiction books, according to my Goodreads.) It is practically immaterial that the Strugatsky brothers surround this concept with a rather disorganized and convoluted plot structure, in which our central Stalker character Redrick Schuhart jaunts in and out of the Zone on several missions over the course of years, disappearing from the book in the middle passages for a stint in prison. With "Red" deposed, we tag along with government functionary Richard Noonan (the book is improbably set in Canada, don't ask), which gives the Strugatskys a chance to delve into some of the more heady philosophical tangents in the narrative. Much of the book is dedicated to cataloging and explaining the effects of various "devil's artifacts" in the Zone, delightfully named, which include (but are not limited to): empties, full empties, burning fluff, spitting devil's cabbage, witches' jelly, silver web, shriekers/itchers, hell slime, death lamps, rattling napkins, lobster eyes, mosquito mange spots, magnetic traps, black sprays, jolly ghosts, wriggling magnets, the meat grinder, and Dick the Tramp. Most significant is an item referred to as "The Golden Ball", a fabled object that is rumored to have the power to grant wishes. The book is essentially a Pandora's Box allegory, rife with Russian mysticism and the angst of the nuclear age.
I establish all of this for context, because despite the Strugatsky brothers serving as screenwriters on the film, the roadside picnic metaphor is not actually articulated in Andrei Tarkovsky's STALKER. This may be the all-time biggest flex in the history of science fiction cinema, considering the eerie efficacy of the metaphor. Instead, Tarkovsky strips the book back to its most essential components: a mysterious and dangerous Zone, and a Stalker who acts as a guide within its boundaries.
“The zone is a very complex maze of traps... I don’t know what happens here when humans aren’t around. But as soon as humans appear, everything begins to change. Former traps disappear, new ones appear. Safe ways become impassable... This is the Zone... at each moment, it’s as if we construct it according to our state of mind.”
An opening title crawl quote credited to a fictional Nobel Prize winner wonders "was it a meteorite or visitation from outer space?" But within the film itself, the genesis of the Zone is not specifically named as an alien Visitation, as it is in the novel. Instead the Stalker deflects whenever anyone asks about the origin of the Zone, claiming not to know. There is almost no emphasis on the "devil's artifacts" of the novel, Tarkovsky instead narrowing in on the concept of The Golden Ball that grants wishes, and swapping out the Golden Ball for an enigmatic Room that manifests the subliminal desires of the intrepid few that set foot in it. Like in the novel, the Stalker has a wife and child, and the child (affectionately nicknamed 'Monkey') has been mutated by the Zone's effects on the Stalker's genetics. But whereas in the novel Monkey is an atavistic, degenerate creature covered in a layer of fur, the film version of Monkey has a more relatable 'mutation': disabled legs (both versions of Monkey appear to be mute.) Instead of several trips in and out of the Zone over the course of years, with plot diversions that focus on side characters, business transactions, and the bureaucratic concerns of Zone management, STALKER observes the Aristotlean unities of action, time, and location. The Stalker guides a Writer and a Professor into the Zone with the ultimate goal of entering the Room, and that's the entire narrative.
However, I don't mean to suggest that STALKER lacks the hefty philosophical weight of "Roadside Picnic" based on Tarkovsky's choice to elide the central metaphor of the novel. On the contrary, STALKER is a heavy philosophical treatise, but it focuses on Tarkovsky's ontological predilections more than anything in the Strugatsky canon (so much so, that I have come to doubt the accuracy of the full screenwriting credit attributed to the Strugatskys.) STALKER is an allegory with variegated layers. The top layer of allegory is fairly straightforward to parse. A man of faith (the Stalker) leads an artist (the Writer) and a scientist (the Professor) towards an unknowable destination, asking them to trust that spiritual transcendence awaits them. Along the way, they encounter very little that would explicitly confirm the presence of the supernatural. There is no "witches' jelly" or "rattling napkins" here, only a palpable sense of the uncanny that pervades the atmosphere. Aside from a few moments (a fluttering bird that disappears from one frame to the next in the meat grinder scene, for example) the Writer and the Professor must simply believe the Stalker when he describes the dangerous properties of the Zone, or warns that a stolen swig from a flask here or a choice to backtrack there will spell certain doom. The Stalker invests great personal value in his calling. He's vindicated when his charges survive the horrors of the Zone, judging that the Zone has deemed them worthy of survival. He never enters the Room himself, only wanting to lead someone worthy to its promise of salvation. But despite the fraught journey, these representatives of art and science ultimately fail the Stalker. They are unwilling to embrace his faith in something that cannot be described or quantified. Neither of the men enter the room. Back at home and exhausted after the journey, the Stalker laments his burden:
"Their capacity for faith has atrophied... Their eyes are blank... How can such people believe in anything at all? Nobody believes, not only those two. Nobody. Who shall I take there? Oh, Lord. The most terrible thing is that nobody needs that Room and all my efforts are in vain..."
STALKER is subtextually about how the frontiers of science and art have retarded the human capacity for spirituality. The film portrays a metaphysical arena, perhaps modeled after Tarkovsky's own mind, where these three subjects clash in uneasy co-dependence. Humanity can be led to the threshold of belief, shown signs and wonders along the way. But no one who is unwilling can be made to embrace faith. Both the Writer and the Professor have their reasons for seeking the transcendence of the Room. The Writer eventually expounds on his designs in a self-pitying rant, expressing his hatred of writing, the weight of his artistic stature, and its consumption of his true identity. Having tasted the faux-immortality of artistic expression, he wants a more tangible permanence. Meanwhile, the Professor reveals a 20-kiloton bomb and an intent to destroy the Room, lest its powers fall into the wrong hands. Here the Professor represents the arrogance of science, which proposes to explain and control the entirety of the cosmos, despite the fact that the sum total of everything that humans are able to observe in the universe amounts to just 5% of its total composition. The Stalker pleads with him to change his course of action. "This is the only place to come to when all hope is gone", he begs, establishing the Zone as a spiritual refuge in a hostile world. Both the Writer and the Professor pursue selfish aims under the guise of the greater good, but they do not truly believe in the Room unconditionally, with the priestly devotion of the Stalker himself. On the threshold of the Room, the film becomes a purified dialectic between spirituality and reason, as the Writer and the Professor question the utility of hope, and the motives of the Stalker in protecting it. The Writer accuses the Stalker of wielding his responsibilities in the Zone for money, or for power. But the Stalker insists that his life outside the Zone is a waking misery. "Everything I have is here. Here, in the Zone. My happiness, my freedom, my dignity. They're all here. The people I bring here are unhappy like me. But... I can help them! I weep for joy because I can help them. I ask for nothing more."
There are only two female characters in STALKER, and between them they only garner maybe 10 minutes of screen-time in a 160 minute film. But in the closing scenes of the film, the wife reiterates the Stalker's principles in a simple domestic context. Tarkovsky described his intent with the Stalker's wife in "Sculpting in Time": "human love alone is—miraculously—proof against the blunt assertion that there is no hope for the world. This is our common, and incontrovertibly positive possession. Although we no longer quite know how to love." Recounting her marriage to the Stalker, she stares into the camera and monologues:
"I was sure I'd be happy with him. I knew there would be a lot of sorrow. But I'd rather know bittersweet happiness than a gray, uneventful life... When he came up to me and said 'come with me', I went. And I've never regretted it. Never... It's just fate. It's life. It's us. If there were no sorrow in our lives, it wouldn't be better. It would be worse. Because then there would be no happiness either. And there'd be no hope."
The other female character, Monkey, performs a miracle in the film's final scene, moving glasses across a table with her mind. This action, performed by a living product of the Zone's influence, reinforces the thematic interest in faith throughout the film. Significantly, none of the other characters are around to witness it.
It's emphasized over and over again throughout the film that travelers in the Zone are, more than anything, hoping that the Room will deliver personal happiness. The Stalker speculates that the Zone and its tolerance of humankind operates not from an assessment of relative good and bad, but from a measure of happiness—it favors unhappy travellers. But happiness is a slippery commodity. The Stalker relates an anecdote concerning a fellow Stalker named Porcupine, whose brother died in one of the Zone's many traps. Porcupine chose to enter the Room to grant his deepest desire, presumably the return of his dead brother. But the Room granted him untold riches instead, and so Porcupine chose to commit suicide in his guilt over his misplaced priorities.
Everything I have discussed so far concerns the most obvious allegory that the film presents us with, but other themes radiate outwards from this parable of faith like ripples in a pond. There is a subtle class commentary to the story that is not quite as obvious as the commentary on spirituality. The Stalker is a working class character, a lumpenproletariat who operates in a grey zone of occupational illegality, but someone whose livelihood is derived from his own sweat. His physical body is the source of his labor. In contrast, the Writer and the Professor are both members of the intelligentsia, men who perform their labor with their minds. While one would assume that their professions would indicate a high level of intelligence, they repeatedly underestimate the Zone and disregard due caution. Both men ignore the Stalker's careful instructions at various points in the film, thinking that they know better. Ultimately, they think that the Zone and the Room within it can be understood, or even destroyed. The Stalker knows to respect the forbidden mysteries of the place, and thus finds himself better suited to the environment. But while the Stalker may seem at first glance to be a simple bumpkin, the final scenes of the film reveal hidden dimensions to his character: bookshelves jammed with dusty tomes, and a critical outlook on his life's work. Furthermore, throughout the film he displays a spry flexibility in temperament, shifting his emotional outlook to adapt to the fluctuating effects of the Zone. He explains this at one point, remarking that "hardness and strength are death’s companions, flexibility and softness are the embodiment of life." Far from a lunk-headed plebe, the Stalker is a finely tuned instrument with a specific set of skills and a philosophical outlook to rival the more "rational" men in his charge.
The Zone and the Room are also potent symbols for a supple array of ideas. Guarded by heavily armed military personnel that fire on all trespassers, the Zone itself is an apt avatar for the knowledge hidden behind the repressive curtain of Soviet censorship. It can also be a fitting representation of 20th century geopolitics, symbolizing the actual physical borders that separated Europeans from each other in the height of the Cold War. It bears mentioning that "Roadside Picnic" was written 15 years before the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and is shockingly prescient in retrospect. The aftermath of Chernobyl saw the Soviet government erect an "exclusion zone" with a radius of 30km around Pripyat, attempting to limit the effects of the ambient radiation of the failed reactor on the surrounding population. 33 years later, the exclusion zone is still uninhabited, save for a healthy population of wildlife that have reclaimed it (recalling STALKER's psychopompic black dog), and a black market of guides (who, inspired by the novel or film or both, often call themselves "stalkers") that conduct tours of the area for morbid travelers. Documentarian Adam Curtis borrowed the idea of the Zone in his film HYPERNORMALISATION, to describe the modern phenomenon of socio-political echo chambers where the inhabitants don't know they are being subjected to distorted realities. In November 2016, leftist podcasters Chapo Trap House used the language of "Roadside Picnic"/STALKER to express the inexpressible grimness that set in after Donald Trump's successful bid for President of the United States: "We live in the Zone now." Virtually any high-minded abstract can be plugged in as a symbol for the Room: life, death, enlightenment, knowledge, transcendence, God, the afterlife, power, experience. But leave it to Tarkovsky to throw cold water on such suppositions, again from "Sculpting in Time":
"People have often asked me what the Zone is, and what it symbolizes, and have put forward wild conjectures on the subject. I'm reduced to a state of fury and despair by such questions. The Zone doesn't symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films: the zone is a zone, it's life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through. Whether he comes through or not depends on his own self-respect, and his capacity to distinguish between what matters and what is merely passing."
Even viewers who find themselves glazing over at the philosophical content I've expounded on here should find STALKER impressive on a technical level. Rewatching the film (my third viewing) in Criterion's recent restoration, as opposed to the Kino DVD I would have watched previously, I was completely floored by the film's aesthetic. This may be the most stunning cinematography ever captured on celluloid. Even more impressive, and distressing, is that it was not Tarkovsky's first attempt to shoot the film. Tarkovsky spent a year shooting all of the film's outdoor (ie. Zone) scenes on an experimental Kodak film stock that came back from the lab unusable, compromised with an unwanted green tint. Tarkovsky fired his original cinematographer and reshot the film from scratch. I literally can't imagine the initial despair and eventual triumph of doing this. If my computer crashes and I lose an hour's worth of writing for a Letterboxd review I feel like throwing myself into traffic. In STALKER, Tarkovsky crystallizes his technique of switching between different visual tones, this time deploying the shifts to indicate changes in the environment. The initial scenes and concluding scenes outside of the Zone are shot in rich sepia monochrome, giving the decrepit urban environments a strange juxtaposition of ornate burnish and entropic decay. When the Stalker, Writer, and Professor enter the Zone the cinematography makes a breath-taking switch to a lush color palette, heavy on verdant greens and somber blues. We switch back to sepia exactly once within the Zone, in a scene where the Writer is expressing his doubts, perhaps suggesting that it's the Stalker alone who has crossed the full color rubicon while the other men remain in a simpler grade. The final scene where Monkey performs her miracle is again shot in color, bolstering the idea that she is a product of the Zone. STALKER is also the first Tarkovsky film where the sound design made a strong impression on me. The audio track is full of strange alien noises: clanking rail cars, the plaintive howls of unseen creatures, burbling water and whispering winds. Dialogue is often played in pre-lap or post-lap, creating a sense of time distortion. The electronic score is otherworldly, but emotive. Classical music occasionally intrudes, but it sounds like a garbled transmission from an alternate universe.
This is perhaps Tarkovsky's most influential film, and is widely regarded as his best work. Directors as diverse as Lars Von Trier (THE ELEMENT OF CRIME), Béla Tarr (WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES), and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (UZAK) have cited Tarkovsky, and this film in particular, as having made a formative impression. The latter example contains a particularly amusing STALKER-related gag (if you can call anything in a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film a "gag"). The main character, faced with an unwanted house guest, puts STALKER on the television to drive his friend out of the room, but switches to porn whenever his friend leaves. It's hard to imagine what the careers of other famous Soviet/Russian directors, including heavyweights like Alexander Sokurov, Aleksei German, and Konstantin Lopushansky, would be without Tarkovsky and STALKER. Even Hollywood is attracted to the film and its seductive genre concept. Alex Garland's ANNIHILATION is practically a sexed-up STALKER remake (this is not a knock against ANNIHILATION, which I absolutely loved), and Jeff VanderMeer's book betrays a clear influence. At one point I wanted to adapt a different Strugatsky book, "Definitely Maybe", into a screenplay. I found the contact details for Boris Strugatsky's agent (Boris was still alive at the time) and reached out. Strugatsky was not amenable to a cheap option agreement, and the purchase price for the rights was too expensive for a spec script from a dabbler like myself, but Boris and his agent did express a kind of measured delight at the book I had chosen. I quote: "at least one Western film maker who doesn't want to do a re-make of STALKER!"
A final sad note: It is likely that this film killed Andrei Tarkovsky, actor Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Tarkovsky's wife Larisa (who assistant directed his later films and acted in MIRROR), and perhaps other members of the crew. Much of the film was shot in and around power plants and chemical factories, locations which lend the film its distinctive post-industrial dystopic mood. The toxins from these environments are actually visible in certain scenes (in particular, the ever-present fluff that floats through the air). At any rate, several people involved in the production later died of lung cancer.
After this rewatch, I have decided that STALKER is simply one of the greatest films ever made. Some might find it slow or pretentious, but I admire any work of art that attempts to seize God by the face, even if it only manages to brush divinity with its fingertips. I have made a rare adjustment to my top 4 pinned favorite films on Letterboxd, so it's official. And in my Tarkovsky rewatch project, I finally feel like I am over the most daunting peak, and it's all downhill from here. Onwards to NOSTALGHIA.