Saturday, March 14, 2009

Random Movie Report #61: Stalker

Amazon link to Stalker on DVD
As a brief personal note, if you didn’t see the Twitter sidebar or my self-promotion on various fora, I have just sent a script to the BBC Writersroom program- which, incidentally, budding writers should look into because it’s cool. Anyway, any good vibes on your part would be appreciated. Thanks.

I consider Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS to be, possibly, the best science fiction film ever made. (Yes, my tastes normally run towards spaceship battles and weird monsters, but hey, I’ve got layers.) So STALKER was a film I had to see, and surprisingly it gives SOLARIS a run for its money. It has many of the qualities one expects from Tarkovsky; it’s beautiful, dense, spiritual, slow, sometimes hard to pay attention to, but ultimately profound and moving. It has both the bizarreness and the vivid reality of a dream, and sticks with you in a similar way. As science fiction, it’s both wonderfully speculative and maddeningly enigmatic.

The film takes place in an unspecified but exceedingly grim, vaguely authoritarian future. Years ago, a strange object fell to Earth creating a huge explosion which mutated the land around it into something called “The Zone”. Within the Zone, there is a room which is said to grant the wishes of those who enter it. The government has closed off the Zone, and uses lethal force on those trying to enter it. The nameless protagonist (Aleksandr Kaidonovsky) is a stalker, a man who is paid to lead people through the Zone to the room where wishes are granted. On his latest trip, he takes along a cynical writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and an aging scientist (Nikolai Grinko), and the three manage to break past the border security and take a small train car to the middle of the Zone. There the real challenge begins, because according to the stalker, the Zone is a treacherous place, laced with traps to claim the lives of the unwary. The room cannot be reached by a straight line; the journey takes the men through a tangled wilderness and shattered ruins, and they are haunted by unseen forces and their own conflicts and doubts. Others have made this trip before, but many come away unhappy, and some end up dead.

A certain ambiguity hangs over everything in this film. We don’t see people claimed by the traps, and the writer and scientist must take the stalker’s claim that they’re there on faith. And, indeed, there’s no proof that the room does anything. The inherent uncertainty of the quest leads to strained relations between the three characters, as does the uncertainty of their motivations. The writer first says he wants inspiration, but backs away from that claim. The scientist seems to want to study the Zone. At the same time, the tension and dread of the place is palpable, through slow establishing shots of the twisted yet verdant landscape. (Most of the picture was shot in and around an abandoned chemical plant, a choice that creates some staggering visuals but is thought to have contributed to the untimely deaths of many of the cast and crew. So, we probably won’t be seeing that location used again.)

As with many other Tarkovsky films, there’s a heavy element of spirituality and religion snuck into the picture past the Soviet censors. The characters must take a journey of faith, navigating a treacherous path and believing what the stalker says about the environment around them, in order to obtain whatever they want. At times the stalker seems almost like a Christ figure leading people on the difficult road to salvation, but he’s soon given plenty of flaws. The film dodges any one specific allegory just enough to not be heavy handed, though the fact that the pilgrims are an artist who doesn’t know what he wants and a scientist who wants to demystify the Zone is just a bit leading.

Of course, there are other elements as well. As in SOLARIS we have a place that seems to be alive and responsive to the people who enter it, thus exploring it becomes a matter of exploring oneself. The characters are forced to ask themselves what they really want, and whether they can risk it coming true. The conflict in the film is primarily psychological, and the way the three main characters work on each other’s nerves is quite powerful. There’s even the occasional moment of black humor, and a strange element of fantasy- the film starts in sepia-toned black and white, but like THE WIZARD OF OZ switches to color when we enter the Zone.

The making of this movie was apparently a more epic undertaking than most. Apart from the whole “toxic set” situation (and really, the environment here is unlike anything I’ve seen in my waking life), the cast and crew effectively had to shoot the whole thing twice, after a lab error ruined the original negatives, and a new D.P. had to be brought in to boot. It’s remarkable that the film looks pretty polished regardless, though I expect the strain of the production helped make the actors seem authentically strung-out.

So what’s the overall effect? Well, it borders on transcendent. The film is slow, oddly structured, and seems to have an overly long denouement. It’s intense despite taking its time; the power of the Zone and the desperation of the questing trio burn into one’s head over time. And then, at the very end, there are two scenes (one involving the quite good Alisa Frejndlikh as the stalker’s wife) which are entirely surprising, and which make us see the entire picture in a new light. Though not without its flaws, STALKER is a unique movie with a unique impact on its viewer- sure, I’ve been comparing it to the two other Tarkovsky films I’ve seen as an attempt to contextualize it, but at the end of the day it’s its own thing. STALKER is a grueling and beautiful experience that’s well worth putting yourself through.

Screenplay by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky from their novel “The Roadside Picnic”
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Grade: A

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