Stalker (1979)

Viewed May 27th


A man known as a Stalker guides two intellectuals through the Zone, a landscape with mysterious qualities. 

There's something that draws the Stalker to the Zone. He risks arrest, divorce, and even death to sneak back into this odd site where aliens landed and have since departed. He does so despite promises to his wife that his days sneaking into the Zone are all now part of the past. Unlike the writer and scientist accompanying him on his latest journey, the Stalker seems obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the zone's final room, which is rumored to deliver those that reach it with their greatest desires. However, when they do get that far, the writer and scientist have had enough; they aren't interested in going any further. Everything thus far has been a riddle or a trap or a maze and they've had enough. The Stalker, though, wants nothing more than to continue descending into that mystery. Director Andrei Tarkovsky presents a metaphor for the dynamic between these three men. We view a long shot of the Stalker's daughter, who was born with mutations caused by her father's exposure to the Zone. She's using her mind to push three glasses across a table. One of the glasses makes it half-way across the table and stops; another makes it to the edge--close enough to peer over--but stops. the third, however, falls off, taking the plunge.

This split between descending into the mystery or standing back in the light of reason is one of several dualities presented in Stalker. Another is the visual quality of the film image itself. It transforms from the washed-out sepia of the "normal" world to the rich saturation of the Zone. Importantly, the Zone's more saturated look carries over to the normal world only in scenes when we see the Stalker's mutant daughter. This visual choice signals that the daughter functions, then, as an alien herself, an emissary from the Zone to the normal world. 

The other major duality in Stalker is the visual contrast in many shots between flowing water and rusted industrial waste, or of the verdant greenery of the Zone contrasted with industrial waste. Some of the most mesmerizing moments of this thoroughly mesmerizing film are long tracking shots above water in which we see the refuse of the material world through a foaming, liquidy shimmer. One of the characters muses philosophically that death is hardness and life is softness & pliancy. And everywhere throughout Stalker, that contrast is explored in visual terms. But Tarkovsky is careful to never give the viewer a firm final message about what all of this might mean. He never shows you what's in the final room, or whether the Stalker is fully justified in his quasi-religious fanaticism. By the end of Stalker, though, the viewer may realize that something interesting has occurred. The world of the film is so fully realized and so deep, yet still so mysterious that it's become, in some way, the Zone. It's an ever-shifting mystery world filled with paradox and beauty. By extension, cinema itself (the art of "sculpting in time," as Tarkovsky puts it) is that soft pliant force that is identified as representing life. Depending on the viewer of Stalker's personality type, they may have had their fill of all this softness and mystery...or they may harbor a secret desire to return, to take the plunge one more time.