The 70s were hailed by many as the Mecca of cerebral, sci-fi entertainment. Films like “Soylent Green,” “The Omega Man” and “Mad Max” dominated the cybernetic cult sphere.
The age of special effects was only on the horizon, allowing plot to still reign over look.
So personality can be weighed over looks, after all.
Now we know we’re way, way in the past.
In spite of the surprisingly large following of this genre so geared toward fearful and uncertain futures and astronomically advanced technology, its greatest gem continues to be relatively unknown even today – acclaimed director Andrei Tarkovsky’s (“Solaris,” “The Mirror”) hauntingly metaphysical epic, “Stalker.”
Taking a tip from his philosophical predecessors, Tarkovsky’s epic is hardly for the action junkies. Rather, it’s a meditation on the human spirit. This mystical tale will leave you with food-for-thought, rather than any lightsaber-induced adrenaline rush – though “Star Wars” is certainly not without its own philosophical merits – unless you count the breakneck speed at which your mind will run to process all the complex ideas therein.
Filmed by a chemical plant in 1979, “Stalker” takes place in an unknown town next to a strangely affected place simply referred to as “the Zone.” Although what happened to this area to make it so special is never explicitly revealed, the viewer does learn that it contains a most coveted and guarded power – a Room with the ability to make one’s innermost desires come true.
It is for this particular reason that it is constantly under heavy military surveillance. All trespassers are immediately shot on sight.
Luckily, a local Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, “Anna Karenina,” “The Turning Point”) – or guide – makes his living solely by taking people into this prohibited Zone. However, when in this perilous realm, one must remember to defer to its wisdom and majesty – the Zone is as capricious as it is wise. It ceaselessly demands respect, the Stalker would insist.
And the most direct route to the Room is always the deadliest.
The tale unfolds as two men, simply known to the Stalker as the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn, “The Mirror,” “Solaris”) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko, “Syuzhet Dlya Nebolshogo Rasskaza,” ‘Solaris”) are taken into the Zone for their own, hitherto unknown reasons.
All this within the first 20 minutes of the two-and-a-half hour quest for the human essence.
What follows is a symphonic cacophony of philosophy and prose, as the trip to the heart of the Zone reveals more about the heart of human nature than most films today could even dream to. After all, the Zone fulfills one’s innermost desires, not those on the surface – not necessarily our most noble, or even profound.
“My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world,” the Writer says, “but my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?”
The performances were each marvelous – delivered with passion, yearning and a sense of quiet desperation, especially by Kaidanovsky, whose interpretation of the solemn protagonist lends a sense of inherent pity and suffering to the film.
Even the entirely brief appearance of the Stalker’s Wife, played by screen-veteran Alisa Freindlich (Office Romance, D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers) was handled with a caliber of professionalism worthy of timeless acclaim.
The cinematography was appropriately surreal, evoking the appearance of a dreamlike landscape. Desolate and abandoned, the Zone takes on a decidedly Freudian quality in representation of the various symbols within.
The Zone is the only area in the entire film to utilize color.
Flaws were restricted primarily to the translation of the subtitles, as the dialogue at times seemed markedly awkward. The only resemblance Fyodor Tyutchev’s poem at the end bore to its translation- lay in the rhyme scheme.
Regardless, “Stalker” forces its viewers to question the very notion of humanity and its traditionally celebrated soul. Through Tarkovsky’s signature, long takes, the lines between reality and fantasy blur, while the personas within the tale to seemingly realize a forbidden truth – desires can be very dangerous.
A bit of fair warning, though: those extended shots require an entirely awake and alert mentality. Due to its slow, ponderous pace, attention can easily be lost within one of the Zone’s many traps.
However, if ever you find yourself on a day with adequate sleep and in a keen disposition, join Tarkovsky and cast as they lead you through an abandoned place, eerily resembling the “Zone of Alienation” at Chernobyl, taking place seven years after the movie’s release date.
Though the perhaps unintentionally prophetic nature of the Soviet masterpiece is reason enough to see the film, the innate sense of abstract gratification that it evokes makes it a unique and imperative find.