Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” is the 43rd best movie ever made, according to Sight and Sound and therefore clearly a movie that brings something to the table. However, Tarkovsky is in my book a man of missed opportunities and it may therefore not be my table he brings it to.
The premise of “Stalker” is a very promising one. In an unnamed country, something came from space, a meteorite perhaps, and changed an area. Uncertain how to deal with it the authorities have sealed it off. Strange things happen inside the “Zone” and there is a certain “room” inside the Zone where visitors can make anything happen. The route to this room is tricky and fraught with danger and only the Stalkers can guide visitors to this room. Alexander Kaidanovsky is “Stalker”, guiding the two visitors, “Writer” (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and “Professor” (Nikolai Grinko) through the Zone to the Room.
This sounds great, but Tarkovsky does not catch the ball. The movie he wants to make is a study of the human soul. What are the reasons for seeking a place where you can get your innermost wishes fulfilled? Why is such a place ultimately dangerous? How essential is such a hope to us being human? Fair enough, those are interesting questions too and that could still work. But the characters in Tarkovsky’s movies talk and talk and very little actually happens. The endless dialogue is often useless bickering or inconsequential ranting to an extent that I never remember anything of it. “Stalker” is exactly like that.
From a plot perspective it is a huge let down that after two hours of getting there, nobody actually enters the Room. Rewinding a bit, the dialogue would reveal both the Writer and the Professor has realized that they are not ready to risk revealing themselves, either because they know they are wanting or because they prefer to keep that part of themselves private.
The bottom line is that all these considerations are hugely interesting but presented in so immensely boring a format that I lose interest in it and I do not remember anything of their argumentation. That is likely my problem. Critics of the world think this is the best thing since sliced bread, but I cannot help it. I was waiting for something to happen, waiting for the penny to drop, some clues, but only in hindsight do I get a glimmer of what the movie wanted to do and that is just not good enough.
My interest in the movie was tickled in other ways though. The zone, or indeed the world, is presented as a decrepit industrial ruin. Chemically polluted water, broken concrete and rusty cannons. This is in fact, and to no surprise, a real landscape in Estonia, then part of the Soviet. I have worked on projects in Estonia where the Russians left only ruin, and this was not unlike such sites. It was so poisonous that large portions of the crew, including Tarkovsky himself, died from cancer allegedly caused by working on this set. Did Tarkovsky intent this as a critique of Russian desolation or was it merely a suitable backdrop to a place of hope? For me, it says more about Russia than anything else.
I do not think I can say that I have liked any of Tarkovsky’s movies and in this case, it feels extra bitter, because both premise and the questions raised are so promising. But at least he made somebody else happy. Not a recommendation from me though.