The ‘Zone’ is, briefly put, the place where everyone and no one wants to be. It’s the arbiter of dreams, the harbinger of death. It’s where you go to live, and where you go to die. Rusted train tracks coil around its perimeter, snaking deep into its industrial heart like oxidised veins. The sky above it is permanently overcast, threatening an apocalyptic storm. Three men walk through the overgrown grass, past the carapaces of abandoned cars, toward its centre…
Andrei Tarkovsky is the filmmaker’s filmmaker, and is widely hailed as one of the greatest directors of the 20th century. Known for perhaps his most famous work, the sci-fi epic Solaris, Tarkovsky stated of his existential space film that it didn’t ‘transcend genre’ like Stalker did in 1979. A rare film that is both staggeringly beautiful and horrifically bleak, Stalker transcends not simply genre but, at times, cinema itself.
The story is as spartan as the story’s central destination, the enigmatic ‘Zone’, in which three men embark on a perilous journey through industrial scrubland and hellish smokescapes to the centre of the ‘Zone’. Alexander Kaidanovsky leads a disillusioned writer and a professor on the journey, known simply to both as the ‘Stalker’, toward their journey’s end. The term is derived from those who make illegal excursions into the ‘Zone’ to hunt for artefacts that lie therein, evading government soldiers that patrol the area and shoot trespassers on sight. The protagonists are not motivated by petty treasures and old relics, however, but are searching for the ‘Room’. Supposedly found in the centre of the Zone, the Room grants those who enter it their greatest wish.
Stalker has been celebrated since its release as one of the finest films from the second half of the 20th century, but as to what kind of film it is people aren’t quite sure. It’s indistinct dystopian setting, established from the first frame of the Stalker’s apartment which looks like an interior from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, hints at a near-future world of oppressive authority. The world itself, however, is barren. The three central characters move across a wasted earth that looks like it’s caught in the throes of an unnamed disaster, and their grubby clothes and sunken faces look toward the deified ‘Zone’ with equal part hope and devastation. We aren’t sure when this film is set, or specifically where. But we can’t look away, their journey becomes ours.
Loosely adapted from Boris and and Arkady Strugatsky’s novella Roadside Picnic, which depicts a similar ‘Zone’ left behind after an alien invasion, the Strugatsky’s also wrote the screenplay to Stalker and imbued it with the same sense of science-fiction intrigue that gave their novel such cult status. The monologues are philosophical but never overwrought – ‘When a man thinks of the past, he becomes kinder’ – and the characters exist not simply as vehicles for this strange journey but also to engage in Tarkovsky’s endless discourse about our place in a wider world.
This is a film that challenges ideas of religion, of what we worship and what higher orders we take for granted. It’s an arduous film, filled with long-takes and existential monologues, but its rewards come in spades. Watch this film and revisit a classic of transcendent existentialism, and worry about your place in the grand scheme of things all over again.
Get Volume #16 here.
Join our club.
Words by Will Carroll