Sunday, 20 February 2011

Andrei Tarkovsky: Stalker - Сталкер (1979)

Directed by Andrei Tarkovskiy.
Starring Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Alisa Frejndlikh, Anatoli Solonitsyn.

For his innovative low-tech science fiction film Stalker (1979), Andrei Tarkovsky uses brilliant cinematic imagination to transform the ghostly-beautiful fields, streams and power plants of Tallinn, Estonia (in the then-Soviet Union) to the organic, industrial science fiction landscape of the Zone - a restricted, hazardous area rumored to contain paranormal power from the crash of a mysterious meteorite. The hard science fiction approach taken in Tarkovsky's epic Solaris (1972) is abandoned for a subtle, unaffected approach where fantastic elements are alluded to but rarely shown (much to the story's benefit) and fused to a narrative framework of "the journey," where protagonists travel to a predetermined destination in search of material or spiritual fulfillment (aka "the road trip"). Only in the hands of a genius like Tarkovsky can the simple narrative structure of three men on a journey be transformed to a complicated moral and spiritual examination of humanity, anchored to references of classical poetry, literature, music and art, filtered through the mesh of a personal life experience in a totalitarian society.

Alexander Kaidanovsky is Stalker, a man charged with guiding two men, Writer (Anatoly Solonitsin) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko), within the heavily-guarded Zone to a Room that holds the power to grant one wish (prayer?) to anyone who enters. Stalker lives in a sparse hovel with his wife (Alissa Freindlikh) and young daughter Monkey, who is unable to walk, perhaps due to a birth defect from her father's regular exposure to the Zone. Stalker's wife is painfully upset and confronts Stalker about his journey as he leaves the family bed to meet Writer and Professor. Unfazed, Stalker departs to rendezvous with the men at a bar. They board a jeep, and after carefully dodging law officers, enter the Zone by following a train through a barbed-wire passageway. Armed guards fire at them. The men escape the guards and locate a small motorized railroad trolley, which they use to travel deep into the Zone until Stalker stops them to continue on foot. The landscape of the Zone is beautiful, with lush, green fields and trees. Amongst the beauty, industrial utility lines and rusted military relics are scattered about. Stalker explains that the Zone is in constant flux and dangerous to navigate, and one can never travel the same path twice. Although the building housing the Room is visible a short distance away, Stalker will not take the direct route; rather, he travels via unexplained, mysterious, and often subterranean routes that he navigates by throwing ahead bolts tied to gauze bandages.

During the journey, Writer is talkative, often questioning society, his writing talent, and self-worth. Professor is more private, and when not arguing with Writer and Stalker, seems more concerned about the knapsack he's carrying. Neither man discloses their motive for visiting the Room. Stalker often communicates with Writer and Professor on a philosophical plane, and frequently refers to Porcupine, a stalker who hanged himself after an experience involving his brother in the Zone. After navigating through several surreal underground rooms, tunnels and caverns, Stalker delivers the men the Room's threshold, where he awaits their decisions about the Room.

Stalker is an accomplished, heady science fiction classic - one of the genre's best - but a very demanding, and sometimes inaccessible, viewing experience. On most days that's a compliment - cinema that continues to challenge the viewer and refuses to wholly disclose its mysteries is indeed a desirable but rare commodity. As populist science fiction veered towards pulp and tech in the late 1970s with films like the Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) and Alien (1979), Stalker preserved science fiction as art, keeping alive the spirit of films like Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962), and influenced a new generation of filmmakers like Lars von Trier, who would begin his career soon thereafter with the Stalker-influenced The Element of Crime (1984).

Reviewed by Todd Harbour in

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