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Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky) 1979   

    Andrei Tarkovskyís epic length sci-fi opus Stalker chronicles nothing less than the journey of man toward happiness and enlightenment. Set in the near future, the film uses highly metaphorical archetypes for characters as three men, a Writer, a Professor, and a Stalker, or guide, named only by profession, move through ďthe Zone.Ē The Zone is a wasteland roped off by the government after a meteor strike twenty years earlier, and they make their way toward a fabled room that will supposedly grant the innermost desire of any whom enters it. Progress is maddeningly slow, as the Stalker informs them that a direct route to the room is not possible in the Zone, since it punishes those who do not show it proper respect. As such, the bulk of the film records the last two hundred meters of their journey almost in real time, as they crisscross their way toward the Promised Land. 

    Their slow trek allows much time for philosophizing, and the Writer and Professor spar with each other about their ideals and methodology. Clearly, the film means for us to take these two characters as representatives of manís approaches in the great struggle toward knowledge, and it works, for the most part. The Writer is a particularly fascinating creation (though my preference might reflect my temperament more than anything) and his arguments against himself are eternal dilemmas caused by knowing too much. Since he is fully aware of the ramifications of true wish fulfillment, it creates a sense of fear of his own limitations and the implications of the roomís very existence. When faced with the prospect of actually reaching Nirvana, which the film presents as impetus for all art and science, it becomes daunting to them, lending tragic dimensions to their journey.   

    The filmís final fifteen minutes take the ambiguous and dense metaphor that Tarkovsky had created and, presumably under the pretense of making the filmís concepts easier to grasp, turns the uncertain into the mind-numbingly literal. Itís wholly unsatisfying, and seems to be the filmís way of repaying the appropriate lack of catharsis up to that point. Itís not exactly a cheat, but it feels unnecessary, especially since the film presents a rewarding, but not cathartic, alternate ending a few minutes earlier. The final minutes of the film seem to be the most overtly sci-fi of the film, so for them to be the least successful is irksome. The minimalism that Tarkovsky exercises throughout is somewhat admirable, but it results in a stodgy film that feels better in retrospect than it does as you actually view it. It provides the fodder for much subsequent thought and discussion, though, precisely because it is spare enough that the viewer can leave the film with a solid remembrance of every event in it. 

    The pleasures felt while watching Stalker are mostly sensory. The filmís use of sound is sophisticated and its cinematography is stunningly good, representing both some of the best color and black and white lensing ever done. The wasteland of the Zone is ultra-detailed, brimming with textured filth. The editing rhythms rarely exceed the pace of the journeymen, and as a result of all this the film manages to transport us elsewhere without elaborate effects. Ultimately, this is a very solid film, but it is also more obviously a metaphorical construct than Tarkovskyís Solaris, and as a result is a bit less emotionally satisfying. 

* * * 1/2 

01/21/02 

Jeremy Heilman