Stalker – 1979
Director – Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring – Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Anatoli Solonitsyn, and Nikolai Grinko
The most arresting part of the film Stalker, is by far its fantastic imagery. I’m sure there will be naysayers who will say that Tarkovsky’s thoughtful narrative takes center stage, or perhaps the subtext of the movie analyzing our relationships with both each other, and with nature. To this I say…Bah!
Stalker does in fact have these other strong qualities, but the fact remains that it’s greatest asset is it’s striking use of color (or the lack of it), composition, visual continuity, and impressive use of and between the positive and negative space in the frame…however. To fully explain the use of these visual elements, we must give at least a pre-cursory look at the films plot.
In an un-named country, on the outskirts of an un-named city, an event happened 20 years ago. The details of this event are un-confirmed, but it is rumored to be a meteorite, or a UFO landing. Either way, the event in question has left the area un-inhabitable by people. The government of the city sent their armed forces in to investigate, and they disappeared, leaving behind their tanks, and weapons to moulder and become overgrown. Afraid that this sort of devastation could extend into the confines of the city, the government restricted all access by the citizenry to the “zone”.
So problem solved, no one goes in…end of story, right? Wrong. Supposedly, within the “zone”, there exists a room. If you were to enter this room, you deepest darkest wish would be granted. These aren’t the wishes that you’d be proud to tell everyone (ie: world peace, end to poverty), instead these are the most base and selfish things that the person craves (ie: somebody dead, wealth, notoriety, etc…). So the desire to get into the “zone” is evident, but the problem is that the natural elements and the landscape of the “zone” have acquired a consciousness, and they don’t like to have intruders. It is the job of our main character to be a Stalker, or a guide into this treacherous wilderness. The Stalkers are able to interpret the conscious landscape, they can navigate the changing whims of the “zone” and deliver people to “the room” and to their innermost desires.
The city, in which we start the story, is a highly dilapidated, nearly deserted industrial looking place. Smoke stacks and rail yards dominate the scenery, and there is an ever-present haze that prevents us from seeing too far into the distance. Everything is in ruin, and everything has a very solid, real quality. This city actually exists somewhere. And the production value that comes from it helps us to believe the characters and the fantastic nature of the story that much more. It ceases to be a science fiction movie, and starts being a document of an alternate reality.
From here we can talk about the imagery…The opening of the film, and all the scenes taking place within the city are filmed in a luscious black and white photography that takes on a very distinct sepia tone. So even though it is in black and white, it, like the rest of the city is decaying and falling apart. The lighting is very, very harsh and high-key, like the noir films of the post-war era, they evoke a clear feeling of one way or the other, no shades of gray only absolutes. Now, juxtapose this harsh reality with the scenes shot within the “zone”. Shot using color, rich greens, browns, and blues, the “zone” is less absolute, less certain, and though it is more dangerous, it is also more free.
Here, we see what happens when we leave nature to it’s own devices. Whatever is left of human existence is being steadily eroded by nature. In the “zone” people hold little sway, and unlike the city, there is life everywhere. Water is a particularly connective theme in the “zone”, it is everywhere, and our main characters are constantly in contact with it. Our characters are given more room to breath here, both literally as well as in the composition of the images. We are given less close-ups, and instead linger more often on longer shots. Since we are now further away, and robbed of the facial expressions, the characters need to do more to convey emotion, and show motivation. This results in a more languid, slower pace to the movie.
While the set up to the film sounds like an action movie, I assure you that it is not. Tarkovsky takes his time, and gives his characters time to be still and reflect their situation (this is where all the introspective, man versus nature, man versus himself type content comes into play). As a result, Stalker is definitely not for everyone. If you are fond of the slow, deliberate nature of the films of Stanley Kubrick, you will probably get something out of watching this film. On the other hand, if you find yourself infuriated with meandering action, and sullen introspective characters, you’ll probably wish it was more of an action film.