Andrei Tarkovsky, in my opinion, invented a new language for visual composition within filmmaking and is one of my main career influences. Tied with Sergei Eisenstein, he remains one of the greatest Russian filmmakers who had ever lived. He even once said that “Cinema is a mosaic made up of time.” In his own right, next to Ingmar Bergman, Tarkovsky was a cinematic poet, incorporating lyrical words into images. Stalker (1979) really identifys a human’s desire of what he or she wants to fulfill in life. This desire tries to test characters with moral ambiguity and is also matched by a satirical element with the world becoming a dystopian. Of course, many films by Tarkovsky are filled with subjectivity. The original story of Stalker, entitled Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers, shows how the world as we know in utter ruin, similar to Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels. It also echoes Ray Bradbury’s literary work, who Tarkovsky deeply admired. But in contrast, it deals with the human subconscious.
Roadside Picnic tells the story of how an extraterrestrial phenomena have left unexplained artifacts in six bullet-hole areas of land, known as “Zones.” A group of thieves, known as “Stalkers” are sought to seek out these precious objects. The word, “Stalker” represents a furtive way of conquering a land through straggly and self-assurance. The story centers around an eight year period with one of the “Stalkers,” Rederick Schuhart, who becomes the subject of guilt, torture, exploration of the human soul, and finding a conclusive meaning within existence. His child even becomes a victim of the Zone. The book itself uses abstract meaning for most of the terminology of the objects. Alien life is best described as anonymous; their purpose is still a total mystery. From the moment that we reach the Zone, it becomes an enigma. The Zone and its artifacts give off a personification; they give off character. Perhaps, the intent of the object from an alien’s perspective is to test, not only human life but also morals. The objects from the Zone can either grant someone’s true desire or bring ruin. It really depends on human emotion and could nearly be an analytical study.
The book does mention, however, that the alien visitors were oblivious to humankind, though it may be a satirical element that puts in context, humans’ ignorance of precaution and forms of intelligence life. In other words, humankind having the answer right in front of them, but not fully realizing the results; humans pushing nature aside from them. The novel puts the everlasting question of life in crucial detail, though not too explicit. From ecology to human philosophy, it was a pretty self-demeaning novel. It is no wonder that Tarkovsky wanted to explore more of the boundaries of a human’s subconscious.
It was in the late 70’s that Stalker was made. The film is a looser adaptation by the Strugatsky Brothers, who even collaborated with Tarkovsky in writing the screenplay. For myself, it remains of the greatest science-fiction films ever made, though it does not rely so much on science. What makes both versions faithful is the fixation of one’s attention on humanity’s struggle with harm and ruin that becomes scrutinizing in thought. It is not a simple film to witness at first, unless the viewers are drawn into the visual motifs and symbolism, including the fact that there are less than one hundred and ten shots. Tarkovsky was one of the masters of utilizing the tracking shot. One of the key reasons for his tendency to use long-takes is for an audience to explore and engage the world he created through the signature themes of nature, philosophy, and metaphysics. His films are stunningly beautiful in texture almost like paintings, reminiscent to the Old Masters; he was deeply inspired by the works of Pieter Bruegel and Russian icon painters from the 15th Century.
Stalker is one of his finest pieces ever to be filmed. Unlike Roadside Picnic, the film chronicles three characters who journey into the Zone, a Stalker, a Writer, and a Professor. The Zone itself becomes another character, it is lush and full of nature and color in contrast to the distasteful post-apocalyptic future world in which humans are struggling to survive. Tarkovsky highlights this cinematographic technique by switching from a high-contrast sepia tone to full color. The Zone, this time, has a mind of its own. Like the novel, it is sent by unknown extraterrestrial life. Many people have tried to find its answer but end up insane, delusional, or even suicidal. The desires (or wishes) are granted in this one room at the heart of the zone.
The structure of the film can be identified as a spiritual odyssey, almost a pilgrimage. The Stalker himself acts as a mythological guide, leading his two companions to a phenomena that cannot be seen but does toy with the human emotion. The Stalker’s methods seem mythical, tossing his bolt-nuts and white bandages in the air to mark a pathway. The Zone becomes an instant metaphor for dealing with the unknown. It can also represent humanity’s last resort of hope for a dying future. What Tarkovsky tries to conceive is finding a man’s true self. The Zone becomes the test for the heart and soul. Stalker is not well-known by many, who are not acquainted with Russian cinema, but it is definitely directed in an auteur manner. Tarkovsky’s genius was purposely finding a true definition of cultural existence retraced through memories and sculpting time.