A hired guide leaves his family in an urban hellhole to navigate a path into a different kind of hell - a restricted territory known only as the Zone. Thought to be the site of an ancient meteor strike or alien landing (no one quite knows any more), this decaying no-man’s land is somehow alive, possessed of a sentient intelligence that infests the minds of those who enter it and sends them towards the many traps it has laid to discourage them from discovering its secrets.
Only the Stalker knows how to make it through. His clients are a right pair of comedians known as The Writer and The Professor, who seek to traverse the Zone to enter a place at its heart known as the Room, which can apparently make dreams come true. But what if the Room is less interested in what is consciously asked for than what is unconsciously desired? There may be trouble ahead, gentlemen…
Andrei Tarkovsky’s final Soviet feature is one of cinema’s true enigmas. If you’ve ever found inner peace exploring ancient abandoned buildings, old asylums or gutted chemical factories, Stalker is your 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s an extraordinary alchemy in the way Tarkovsky’s camera lingers across the sunlit acidic streams, rusted machinery and asbestos-laced detritus of the various found town and country locations he uses to represent the mysterious Zone. The visual communion he brokers with this poisoned, organic landscape is at least as compelling as the one his characters seek from the mysterious Room at its centre. Tarkovsky’s use of sepia tinting for the framing scenes and vivid colour film stock for the body of the film imbues the Zone with a creeping hyper-reality. Even more than in Solaris (1972), he also avoids obvious ‘science fiction’ visuals to signify the fantastic, instead relying on a convergence of mutated countryside and industrial wasteland to convey the haunting ‘otherness’ of the Zone.
Talking of film stock, therein lies a tale. Having spent a whole year capturing his location footage, Tarkovsky returned to Moscow and lost the whole lot due to a film lab processing error. Whoops. When he went back to shoot it all again, he became unhappy with his cinematographer so fired him and started yet again. Which effectively makes the version of Stalker released the third version filmed. That’s one hell of a lot of time spent inhaling toxic industrial chemicals. And so it proved: many of the crew experienced horrendous allergic reactions and the subsequent early deaths of actor Anatoliy Solonitsyn (‘The Writer’), assistant editor Larisa Tarkovskaya and Andrei Tarkovsky himself were all from cancers attributed to the dangerous filming conditions. So don’t expect a director’s commentary.
The disc’s supporting interviews from 2002 with cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky, set designer Rashit Safiullin and composer Eduard Artemyev are all fascinating and embellish the sad legacy of the production. Knyazhinsky takes a look at one photograph of various crew assembled on location and announces “I am the only one still alive out of all these people!”. Suffice to say, such foreknowledge makes the experience of watching Criterion’s beautiful 2K restoration a deeply affecting experience. At 160 minutes, you may want to attempt it in sections because the whole thing can become completely hypnotic and lull you into a trance. And best not watch it after the pub, either. On a couple occasions, this writer nodded off into a ‘Zone’ dream and continued watching a version of the film in his head. It was pretty good, too. Who needs the Oculus Rift with that kind of VR?
However you experience it, experience it, because Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is simply one of the most extraordinary films that has ever, or will ever, be made.
STALKER / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: ANDREI TARKOVSKY / SCREENPLAY: ARKADIY STRUGATSKIY, BORIS STRUGATSKIY, ANDREI TARKOVSKY / STARRING: ALISA FREYNDLIKH, ALEKSANDR KAYDANOVSKIY, ANATOLIY SALONITSYN, NIKOLAY GRINKO / RELEASE DATE: JULY 24TH