This film, by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, is apparently based on a novel called The Roadside Picnic (1971), by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky. I have not read this novel but I just might, now that I’ve seen this adaptation. The film is classified as Science Fiction. And I would say this is correct insofar as 1984 (novel and film) is also considered SF. Meaning, of course, that neither films are SF. It appears as though the novel, The Roadside Picnic, is pure SF, however.
This is a pretty long film, at 2 1/2 hrs. And, considering I’ve seen Tarkovsky’s Solyaris (1972), I considered myself in for a slow ride with Stalker. I’d like to note here that having read Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris (1961), and seen the Clooney/Soderbergh (2002) remake of the film, the 2002 film is more committed to the novel’s narrative, and Tarkovsky’s film is more abstract. From this I can perhaps intuit something about the potential for Tarkovsky’s artistic license with his adaptation of The Roadside Picnic.
With that being said, the most prominent thing about this film is clearly the cinematography. There is a stark contrast between the Town and the Zone. The Town is filmed in sepia-tones (sometimes perhaps in B/W) and the Zone is filmed in color. In Town, the atmosphere is muddy, grey, povertified (seems like a good time to coin a new term). All of the floors have mud and water on them in Town. Everything glistens with mud. A complete look at the setting itself is obscured from the viewer, and even when the Stalker is driving the Writer and the Scientist around, avoiding the police, there is no real perception-of-space-or-place because of the way the scenes are shot. This gives way to a feeling of limited space; in other words, of a sense of living and existing in confined quarters, in a confined neighborhood, in a confined city, in a confined country; in a confined psyche perhaps?
The Zone, once they get there, is richly green. Trees and grasses everywhere. Then the viewer notices that all of the characters have blue eyes, characteristics otherwise obscured from the viewer in Town. There is clearly a difference between what goes on in Town and what goes on in the Zone. As the film progresses, it becomes perhaps a little more obvious as to why. Strewn throughout the Zone are downed power lines and rusted out tanks and automobiles. Apparently a meteor fell to create the Zone, and all of this devastation must have been the aftermath. However, there isn’t sufficient information provided to the viewer about the meteor, the fallout, why the Zone was created, other than civilization is sectioned off from the Zone, behind barricades, in order to keep people away from it (nature, the mysterious) out of fear of the place. Very much in a Brave New World sort of way in terms of the reservation; or in a 1984 sort of way with the Prole sectors. Or better yet, exactly like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, We (1921), with its cordoned off sector for civilization hermetically sealed off from the wilderness (i.e. disorder and nature).
Something that becomes obvious in the Zone is that it is also a muddy, wet place, like in Town. Eventually the three men make their way to some buildings, where the elusive Wish Room is, and it is full of water and mud and discarded objects, and old sewer-looking tunnels, and ponds of chest-high stagnant water that must be trudged through. The entire environment is damp and muddy. A cesspool. A beautifully-lit cesspool, I might add.
The way the three men make their way through the Zone to the Wish Room is very interesting. The Stalker is the guide, but his process is very meticulous and rigid to the rules he has learned from his predecessor (the late Porcupine). The Stalker has to first throw a bolt with a bandage attached to it, one of his companions must go first toward the bolt, then the rest of them follow. Then the Stalker picks up the bolt, throws it, and this is how they make their way. They do not go straight. In this way, they sort of “test” their path first before embarking. Almost in a way that they are notifying the Zone itself that they are going in that particular direction, along that particular path. The Zone is apparently an ever-changing place, full of tricks and traps and mystical happenings. They zig-zag up and down and all around. It is the process itself that is the most important part. It is the respecting of the sanctity of the Zone’s temperament that is the most important rule.
When the three men finally make it to the Wish Room, there is a peripatetic moment : The Scientist (a.k.a. the Professor) has been carrying a bomb, intending the entire time to blow up the Wish Room. The Writer seems to be in agreement with this action because he cannot yet bring himself to enter the room and be granted his innermost wish. The Wish Room grants you what you want deep inside of you, not what you think you want. This is something he is not ready to accept so he feels the Scientist’s decision to blow it up is better for everyone involved (so that maniacs and aristocrats can’t come to the Wish Room and get what their perverted hearts truly desire). But the Stalker cannot let this happen. Eventually, the Scientist is talked out of this drastic measure by means of the other two talking it out.
So what is this film about? The final scene in the Zone presents the viewer with an interesting position: while the three men (the Stalker can not enter the room anyway) sit outside the room, staring in, the camera brings the viewer inside the room, deep. What does the viewer see? Nothing; just the three men on the ground, in the water, crying, sulking. But then, as the viewer, you realize you’re in the Wish Room! Tarkovsky is forcing the viewer to reflect on his/her innermost wish. And as all of this is taking place, as the viewer is in the room, the room which the viewer technically cannot see all of, cannot see what the men are seeing, the Writer gives part of the mystery away: the Wish Room is essentially faith in God, and battling to destroy God from the outside is science and logic/reason, represented by the Scientist (he’s a physicist) and the Writer (he’s a novelist). It is the Writer who reveals this truth to the viewer in an abstract way. I can’t quote here because first of all, the subtitles were clearly off because of their poor grammar, and I didn’t write any of it down; you’ll have to trust me. The Stalker, then, represents a conduit to God that is unable to attain, for whatever reason, that which is available to everyone else. He does not appear to represent the clergy, for instance. But the Stalker is the most faithful. He leads people there at his own peril. But he is sworn to not enter the Wish Room. One thing is for certain: a theme of compassion is presented throughout the film in terms of the Stalker’s dialogue. A need to understand and practice compassion in the world. He is somehow a conduit to God via compassion. Perhaps the answer is this: he is compassion and compassion is a conduit to God. Something like that maybe.
At the end of the film, the three men return to the Town, after none of them entered the Wish Room, the Stalker’s wife comes and gets him (and his newly acquired Zone dog–clearly a metaphor for something), and they return with their daughter (a.k.a. Monkey), past a smoking 3-4 stack nuclear plant, to their home where the wife proceeds to tell the viewer directly that her husband has always been touched by God, and therefore ridiculed for it, that he is a prisoner of the Zone in the sense that he is so faithful to leading people to it, that he can do nothing else. Then the film ends on Monkey (who has crippled legs) out on the porch moving drinking glasses using telekinesis while a train rumbles by (same train rumbling by that began the film).
I think the Dalai Lama would like this film for its message of compassion. It really is beautifully filmed. The dialogue is such that it needs to be re-watched in order to really understand the ultimate goal of the film. The viewer can walk away at the end with an idea about compassion and God and science and logic trying to kill God, but there’s much more in there to find out by re-listening to the characters’ words.