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I watched Stalker because I couldn’t stop thinking about Solaris. Both are films by Andrei Tarkovsky, a legendary filmmaker who feels intimidating to approach. He only made huge, heady epics that are intimidating in scope and scale. He made Solaris in 1972 because he felt that Western sci-fi was not thoughtful enough, which is also part of a disagreement with Stanley Kubrick about 2001: A Space Odyssey. He made Stalker for even more complicated reasons than that.
Stalker is the story of a man, known as a Stalker, who can enter a mysterious area called The Zone. The Stalker is not named in the film, and there is a suggestion that there are other Stalkers and that this is more aptly said to be a profession than a name. Most of the other characters are similarly unnamed, including the two men the Stalker brings into The Zone: the Writer and the Professor. Both of them want to go to The Zone for different reasons and the extended action sequence that opens the film shows how tall of a task this is. The military protects The Zone, or at least defends against people entering it. The Stalker’s wife pleads with him not to take another trip to The Zone. The Stalker himself seems resigned to his actions.
The three men drive a military jeep around and evade soldiers, but this is mostly a misdirect. The film takes place almost entirely within The Zone, where the film shifts from sepia-toned black-and-white to full color. Both settings creep along and the pacing is, similar to Solaris, almost unbearably slow. In my review of Solaris I talked about Akira Kurosawa’s commentary on how audiences find Tarkovsky’s films to be difficult because of the pacing and how he tosses off that criticism. Two films may not be enough to speak conclusively about the man’s work, but I have to again disagree. Stalker is almost three hours long and it feels significantly longer. That said, just like Solaris, the runtime is deserved here and you begin to understand what the director wants you to feel as you settle in.
Within The Zone, the two men begin to debate with each other and with the Stalker. They all discuss the dangers of the world around them and the complexities of their lives outside The Zone. They experience otherworldly phenomenon within The Zone, but most of Stalker is about what is inside these three men and what they hope to get out of this trip. There is supposedly a space within the center of The Zone, called The Room, that will grant your greatest desire. The catch, as there is always a catch, is that The Room makes this decision for you. You stand to gain something you could not otherwise achieve, but you also must confront what that means about you. What’s in your Room? Do you really want to know?
The philosophical discussion here is a little more interesting than it is in Solaris and I think it’s a better film as a result. Critical consensus tends to agree, with critics placing Stalker at #29 on the immortal Sight & Sound poll from 2012 that I keep referencing. Tarkovsky has a few films ranked even higher that we’ll get to down the line, but something made me really want to watch Stalker now. The central The Room element is definitely interesting, but there’s so much more to turn over in your head. The film predates the events at Chernobyl, but it’s become tied to the disaster to the degree that people called workers there “stalkers.” The comparisons to various events in Russian history are obvious and become darker as the group progresses through The Zone. The cast and crew famously grew ill as a result of filming near dangerous locations to lend authenticity to the visuals. The bulk of the film was reshot after disagreements between Tarkovsky and his staff and damage to the original film. There’s more to say than we’d ever have space for here.
If you can only pick one, I suggest you pick Stalker instead of Solaris, but you really should watch both. They both depend on your ability to bring something to the picture. There’s a lot of contemplative silence in Stalker and these periods require you to think. Some of these stretches feel repetitive in Solaris but they feel necessary in Stalker. Both films will test your patience, unless you are more like Kurosawa than I am, but they will also reward it.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Chinatown is a perfect mystery story and a movie that rewards revisiting. I will certainly see it more often in my life than I will see Stalker. That’s not the only criteria for greatness, though, because I’ll probably see a lot of movies more than both of them. I think Stalker will give you more to think about, and on this particular day, I think that’s more important.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, still Persona, though I really thought about this one. Stalker is a special film and it’s one I’m glad I saw. There are only a dozen films on the Sight & Sound list that rank above Persona, so it’s no slight to keep saying that it retains this crown. I’ve seen ten of those twelve, and one of the two I haven’t seen is another Tarkovsky film, Mirror. That’ll be coming up, though I may have to take a break from Russian cinema for a few weeks.
You can watch Stalker on The Criterion Channel (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.