Every week, The Criterion Channel will release a free “Movie of the Week” to tease their upcoming streaming service, which debuts in April. Here on Cinemaholics, I’ll be diving into these films to offer up my thoughts on the latest selection.
For their fourth Movie of the Week, Criterion Channel has wisely decided to highlight Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Any one of Tarkovsky’s seven feature-length films released between 1962 and 1986 would make for an excellent showcase of his talent, but it’s only natural that the final choice would be what is perhaps his most talked about film: Stalker. Released in Russia during the spring of 1979 (and a few years later in the U.S.), the film has become a favorite among cinephiles, as well as an undoubtable influence on sci-fi and arthouse fans alike.
Stalker tells the story of a distant future in which there exists a cordoned-off site nicknamed “The Zone,” which is believed to grant anyone their innermost desires upon entering. A man familiar with The Zone (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy)—known as a “Stalker”—is hired as a guide for an Author (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and a Professor (Nikolay Grinko) to venture into The Zone and learn its secrets. The Author yearns for inspiration, the Professor desires knowledge, and the Stalker wishes to further unearth the meaning of the Zone’s existence and what it signifies for humanity as a whole.
If that sounds pretentious and artsy, it’s because it is. And it should go without saying that Stalker isn’t for everyone (not readily, at least). In spite of its sci-fi roots, it’s one of the slowest, most meditative films ever made. At 2 hours and 43 minutes, it’s a bit of a chore to get through (especially after a long day, which I don’t recommend), and the bulk of the movie is made up of sustained location shots and extended philosophical conversations.
There’s no action or palpable thrill to speak of, and it admittedly brings up a handful of questions that are never fully answered. Tarkovsky was fully aware of this, and he even responded to such criticisms by saying, “I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called [Robert] Bresson and one called [Ingmar] Bergman,” referring to two more of the most revered filmmakers of world cinema.
Tarkovsky was known for being ostentatious in the face of criticism. On the pacing of Stalker, he is also quoted saying, “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.” This could be read as somewhat facetious on Tarkovsky’s part; being more of an ‘artistic’ film, the “main action” in question refers to the film’s ideas rather than its spectacle or its plot, but I’d be willing to bet that anyone interested in this kind of cinema will be utterly thrilled by Stalker.
Shot in gloomy sepia (credit goes to cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky), the first act is a tremendously atmospheric mood piece that manages to communicate the depths of widespread emotional despair and hopelessness. All of the joy and meaning has been sucked out of life, and all that remains is the futility of existence, a theme wonderfully communicated through sound by composer Eduard Artemyev.
Tarkovsky was no stranger to emotional dystopia. For instance, 1966’s Andrei Rublev focuses heavily on the role of the artist in a chaotic world, and 1972’s Solaris centers around the sacrifices that come with innovation and discovery. It slowly becomes clear to the viewer that the dystopia in Stalker is a direct result of The Zone’s existence. Whether it’s a crashed meteorite, a remnant of alien life, or merely a supernatural anomaly, having a place that can seemingly grant any wish or answer any question would insidiously eradicate the purpose of human existence.
The film shifts to color upon entering The Zone, and the characters begin to transform as they approach The Room, where wishes are granted. The Writer and the Professor express their cynical views, while the Stalker experiences a type of religious guilt and discipline in the presence of The Room—which is conspicuously reminiscent of a cathedral—wondering if humanity is worthy of this gift, or if this is perhaps the next step in evolution.
One philosophical exchange explores the way in which life ends when something is at its most experienced, which gives weight to the motif of evolution. The theory that the zone is a meteorite speaks to this as well, as it may signal the end of humanity as it did for the dinosaurs. One of my theories is that The Zone is actually a dangerous radioactive site (which it was in reality), and that the mythology is only a manufactured projection trying to make sense of the changing world. This is just one of many possible interpretations.
If this write-up feels somewhat sporadic, it’s because Stalker is a challenging film, and it’s one that I imagine I’ll be wrestling with for many years. At the time of this writing, I’d be willing to call it my fourth favorite Tarkovsky film (after Solaris, Andrei Rublev, and Mirror), but that should in no way speak to any negativity I have toward it. It’s a unique and transcendent experience unlike any other, and it’s one of the most layered and complex films I can think of, in spite of its brazenly obtuse nature.
It’ll mean something different to everyone who watches it. And although it might not be the best introduction to Tarkovsky’s filmography, it’s a great film among other great films, and it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.
Stalker, along with every other weekly title, will be available to stream when The Criterion Channel debuts on April 8.
Sam is a frequent contributor to Cinemaholics, former co-host of Anyway, That’s All I Got, and currently hosts the weekly Extra Milestone podcast. He’ll watch anything once, but makes no guarantees about whether or not he’ll remember it.