Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Sci-Fi Spotlight #1: Stalker

In a new addition to this blog, I’m starting a thematic strand called Screen Fever Spotlight, beginning with a series of five Science Fiction movies, linked by the fact that a) I’ve never seen them and b) I’m curious to find out more. I chose Science Fiction to begin with as it’s a genre I love but have considerable gaps in my knowledge of. So the five films, which I intend to cover over roughly the next five weeks, are Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979), THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971), The Man Who Fell To Earth (Nic Roeg, 1976), Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977). Let's get into it...

Stalker is my first foray into the films of Andrei Tarkovsky: I’ve read and heard a lot of great things about his works, but never plucked up the courage to sit down and take in one of his notoriously dense features. The closest I’ve got to his films in the past is watching the Steven Soderbergh/ George Clooney remake of Solaris which, it turns out, is actually a reasonably useful bridge between contemporary mainstream sensibilities and the more metaphorical, philosophical preoccupations of Tarkovsky’s cinema.

Stalker has a simple and compelling scenario; in an unspecified post-apocalyptic location there exists a Room that, if entered, causes an individual’s deepest desires to come true. The Room is situated in The Zone, an area that has been cordoned off by the military, out of bounds to civilians. But there are rebels, called Stalkers, who will lead people willing to pay and risk their lives into The Zone and to the Room. In the film we are introduced to a cynical writer in need of inspiration, and a curious scientist whose motivations are less clear, both of whom have hired a Stalker to take them on the journey.

It sounds like a standard sci-fi adventure, but in Tarkovsky’s hands the result is two and a half hours of philosophical musing and spiritual questing that ranges from moments of unique insight to stretches that really test one's ability to stay awake. As the journey unfolds, the director uses the three characters to represent opposing ways of thinking about life and faith, and it becomes clear that the story itself is less important than the philosophical and religious questions it allows Tarkovsky to explore. In this way the director offers a lot for a viewer to chew on, but also makes this a film that is more engaging in a post-screening analysis than in the actual moment of watching it.

Stalker is impressively shot, and several of the images Tarkovsky captures are stunning in their originality – a close-up of a pool of water that looks like a gaping hole in space, the unfathomable expression on the sleeping Stalker’s face. I felt occasionally frustrated as so much of the film’s content is wide open for interpretation, leaving not much clear meaning to hold onto, but it has certainly made me keen to see more of Tarkovsky’s films. Perhaps not all at once though.

My Science Fiction Spotlight will continue next week with George Lucas’ THX 1138.


  1. I totally think Soderbergh should have gone with your tagline on the poster: Solaris: a reasonably useful bridge between contemporary mainstream sensibilities and the more metaphorical, philosophical preoccupations of Tarkovsky’s cinema.


  2. I don't think it's possible to really appreciate Stalker without first having read Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.

    I'm not saying that Tarkovsky's Stalker can't stand on it's own as a work of art but it must baffle the hell out of viewers who haven't read the book.

    It's not set in a post-apocalypic world. It's just set in a Russia of the future (as conceived from the 1950's) and the ZONE was the result of an alien visitation that left behind it a deadly shifting wasteland full of strange artefacts and deadly phenomena such as shifting/shearing gravities (that's why the stalker throws nuts when checking if the next few steps will be safe).