Russia. The not-too-distant future. The Zone, an area of land devastated by a meteorite, has yielded unearthly artefacts. The authorities have sealed it off. Armed guards provide sentry duty. Rumour has it that somewhere in The Zone is a place called The Room. Here, it is said, a person's deepest, innermost wish is granted.
The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovksy) accepts a commission to guide two clients - the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) - into The Zone, much to the chagrin of his wife (Alisa Freidlich), who reminds him that his forays into The Zone are illegal, have already cost him time in prison and that their daughter, nicknamed Monkey, is a "mutant" because of him. The implication is that a child of a Stalker is "different".
Nonetheless, the Stalker leads the Writer and the Professor into The Zone, narrowly escaping death at the hands of the trigger-happy border guards. Once in, the Stalker insists they follow his instructions to the letter and not deviate from his directions. Despite continual warnings as to the dangers which await them, The Zone seems benign. The Writer eventually begins to question the Stalker's expertise.
As they near The Room, the Stalker offers the cautionary tale of his mentor, who entered The Room, became rich within days and hanged himself a week later. The Professor reveals he is in possession of an explosive device and intends to destroy The Room. The Stalker tries to wrest it from him, but the Writer intercedes. The Professor, though, is unable to go through with it and the three men depart The Zone.
Writing in Sight & Sound, Jan Dawson described ‘Stalker’ as "one of the cinema’s most searingly pessimistic visions".
Fair dues. But ‘Stalker’ is also – certainly in its extended first reel set-piece wherein the Stalker and his clients play cat ‘n’ mouse with the border guards through the dark streets of a ruined township prior to entering The Zone – tense, suspenseful and pacy. Never mind that Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s source novel ‘Roadside Picnic’ is firmly bracketed in the sci-fi genre, Tarkovsky here seems to be channelling film noir. A really perverse strand of thought currently uncoiling in the back of my mind is speculating on an alternative cinematic reality where Tarkovsky made hard-bitten, cynical, Jim Thompson style thrillers … and coming to the conclusion that he’d probably have been bloody good at it.
For all the thrilleramics of this early sequence, though, ‘Stalker’ is definitely a product of Tarkovsky’s post-‘Mirror’ aesthetic, where narrative is all but abandoned. As in the four films that precede it, the external is a pathway to the internal, his characters’ journey through desolate landscapes mirroring their journey towards the deepest, innermost part of themselves.
Perhaps the idea of The Room as an X-ray machine for the psyche – revealing the human condition at the dark point where the id and the ego struggle perpetually – was what drew Tarkovsky to the Strugatskys novel. Certainly, Tarkovsky considered ‘Solaris’ flawed in that it was all too clearly a science fiction film and his aim was to create cinema without genre.
It’s no surprise then, that his take on ‘Roadside Picnic’ is less an adaptation that a stripping away: gone are the overt indicators that The Zone is the product of an alien civilisation (some of the characters in ‘Stalker’ think that it is, but Tarkovsky never defines The Zone’s origins); gone are the ‘effects’ that populate the novel and leave the reader in no doubt that something unearthly is happening (the Stalker continually warns the Writer and the Professor that The Zone "plays tricks" but we see no evidence of this); gone is the book’s denouement where The Room is breached and a better world wished for. Tarkovsky leaves his protagonists sitting outside The Room, then cuts to an ambiguous coda which never entirely establishes whether they entered it or not.
Ambiguity permeates every frame, every scene, every character. Is the Stalker a survivalist/outlaw (in the novel he is) or an idiot savant – a holy fool, even? What exactly are the Writer and the Professor’s motives for seeking The Room ? Sure, the Writer tosses out the old chestnut about inspiration, but a pre-Zone monologue establishes him as a die-hard cynical who has no faith or belief left in anything; his character does not fit this dreamy idea of inspiration as a stand-in for the continual hard work and honing of craftsmanship that writing is actually about. The Professor’s motives are seemingly revealed towards the end, but why does he desist?
Indeed, the big question of ‘Stalker’ is: what are the three of them thinking about as they sit outside The Room, the camera slowly pulling back and stranding them in a landscape of their own uncertainties as a sudden rainfall washes across them?
Paradoxically – given that I found ‘Mirror’ "too insubstantial in its construct and enigmatic in tone" – ‘Stalker’ grips and intrigues me precisely because it’s enigmatic; because it keeps its mysteries and resolutions offscreen; and because its low-key denouement, with a hint of the genuinely otherworldly and its few seconds of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, suggests (as ambiguously and elusively as anything else in this bleakly beautiful film) some small possibility of hope.