Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 science fiction film lures in viewers with promises of dark futuristic conspiracies, evil alien-like super-minds, and the possible development of psychic powers from within a deteriorating dystopia, and then – very, very, very slowly – pulls the rug out from under you. Stalker is the waving pocketwatch in front of your eyes, a film that lulls you into a near-somnambulist state, ensuring that the discussions, poetry, and philosophy therein feel like they came out of a dream. In watching it, you begin to feel like your mind has been invaded by an outside probe that is implanting something inside you. Something that feels complex and important, but you can’t quite remember what it is. In short, it’s a film that hypnotizes its viewers.
In an unspecified future (there is no super technology or fashion to belie a time), in an unspecified place (the country is never named, although the characters speak Russian), an unnamed Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is hired by an unnamed Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and an unnamed Professor (Nikolai Grinko) to guide them through the dangerous uninhabited country called The Zone. The Zone may or may not be mined, and it is patrolled by a deadly military. Somewhere within The Zone is The Room, a mythical place that has the ability to grant wishes, or perhaps simply manifest all your greatest desires. The previous Stalker is said to have found The Room, but also committed suicide.
The path through The Zone is never a straight line; indeed, the straightest line is always the most dangerous. To test for mines, the Stalker must throw a small cloth bag ahead of him a few feet, trek slowly to it, pick it up, call his charges over to him, throw throw the bag again, ad infinitum.
As they trek, the Stalker, Writer, and Professor talk in a vague, dream-like way, about their desires, their philosophies, and the nature of altruism. They encounter new industrial spaces, each just as rundown as the last. At one point, the Writer receives a telephone call from a nearby phone. “This is not the clinic,” he says. Eventually they will find The Room, and, perhaps predictably, its nature will not be directly revealed. The film’s final scenes may or may not be a fantasy, and may or may not provide hope.
Stalker is 165 minutes long, and famously only contains 142 shots. Its color palate is composed entirely of browns and grays and other earthen tones. The soundtrack is suffused with faraway train sounds and distant rivers, its music gently operatic. The characters talk a lot, but they are never genial, warm, or even entirely human. When a character stops to recite a poem in its entirety, it feels like he is evoking a long-extinct way of speaking, drawing on the cultural memory of a long-ago civilization. It is a bleak sleepwalk into the heart of darkness.
The experience of viewing Stalker provides a visceral antidote to the usual function of film – to speed the beating of one’s heart. It’s a film about repetition. About futility. About losing something you couldn’t even define to begin with. Although a science fiction film, it’s more spiritually attuned to the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett, particularly Endgame. One gets the sense from Stalker that everything has come to an end. The film’s coda – a monologue delivered by the Stalker’s wife (Alisa Freindlich) seem to be a declaration that connecting one’s self to the promise of fulfilled dreams is simply a difficult marriage.
Stalker demands a lot, and, perhaps deliberately, provides little in return. It is a circuitous film. But, when seen in the broader scope of some of Tarkovsky’s other films – his better-known masterpiece Solaris in particular – one can see that he was interested in exploring the notion of unfulfilled dreams. What happens when you can have anything you want? What happens when you don’t get it?
In short, what happens to a dream deferred?
Top Image: Mosfilm
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.