Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is a wondrous vision of a road movie, complete with stupefying doses of alienation and allegory. Typically classified as science fiction, Stalker merely utilizes gray dystopian aspects of the genre to provide a point of reference for its commentaries on the wretched world man has created for himself. The film grafts mental and physical landscapes with such cohesion it becomes impossible to cleve character from setting; to delineate the guilt-ridden mists of the soul from the dank recesses of the physical world.
Tarkovsky was a master of atmospherics and Stalker blatantly drips with the stuff. The film exists in a nightmarish vapor of dullness and decay, as a crumbling, wretched society goes about its humorless labors in a sludgy brown world. Their only hope is The Zone: a weedy wilderness where it is rumored that wishes come true. With access to the Zone forbidden by the authorities, shadowy men known as Stalkers act as guides for those with the determination - and the money - to risk an expedition into this secret Shangri-La. With a writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and a professor (Nikolay Grinko) in tow, one such grim faced Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) heads out on a drizzly dawn to lead a furtive walk into the unknown.
As the men trudge to paradise through bushes and mud, Stalker’s anodyne pacing and shifting definitions of reality create a viewer experience beyond typical notions of cinema. Tarkovsky skewers several manifestations of authority - both real and imagined - with cleverly disguised scenarios that serve as symbols of man’s most egregious self delusions. The outer reaches of the Zone, replete with deserted ruins and the carcasses of burned out tanks, signal that these desolate acres may ultimately contain more heartbreak than heavenly bliss. In a profound bit of theater, the Stalker blazes a trail by tossing rocks wrapped in bandages into the dense foliage, insuring safe passage by “testing for proper gravity.”
Eventually the men reach their objective, and each one departs vastly changed, but in deeply different ways. Tarkovsky then ups the mystical ante with a closing act that’s more revelation than resolution, and comes with its own shocking and intriguing possibilities. Stalker is not light entertainment for a lazy summer night. It is a film that will likely make you feel as drained and exhausted as its characters. You will fall asleep at least once - hopefully someone will be there to wake you - and there will be times when you swear that the damn thing is never going to end. But Stalker will also remain in your mind and your gut for a long time. Perhaps for an eternity.