Written by Boris Strugatsky & Arkady Strugatsky
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Today I begin a week-ish long series called Worlds on the Edge of Chaos. My thought behind this series of movies is to look at apocalyptic films that aren’t Mad Max-ian, deep in the primal collapse of mankind. These movies are intended to be more philosophical about collapse, with characters existing on the precipice between the world that was and falling into the oblivion of the end. These pictures will vary wildly in tone and characters, but they will all explore the themes that arise when we confront the end of civilization as we know it. Many of these movies present their collapse with a melancholy quiet proposing the old adage that the world will end with a whisper.
Far into the future, in a nameless town, lives a Stalker. This man can traverse the Zone, an area where a meteor fell and has become a place where the laws of nature do not operate how we have come to expect. Stalker has been hired by the Writer and the Professor to help them travel the Zone and reach the Room. This is a place that will grant the wish of anyone who steps inside. The Zone has been fenced in and guarded by the military, who fear what could happen if the science within were harnessed by their enemies. Their journey is a slow, ponderous one, as you cannot simply walk straight to the Room because of all the bizarre hazards that are constantly shifting around the landscape. Stalker believes the only place he can be happy is inside the Zone, but he is about to have this challenged.
The first thing we have to address is the stunning cinematography and color grading of this picture. Stalker had two cinematographers after his relations with the first crumbled during production. The first, Georgy Rerberg, produced what Tarkovsky deemed was underdeveloped and that Rerberg was incompetent. I was later discovered that the film stock was defective, not Rerberg. It was too late at that point, and Tarkovsky had already hired Alexander Knyazhinsky as the replacement.
As fraught with errors as the production was the result is one of the most gorgeous looking movies ever made. The scenes outside the Zone are shot in a sepia yellow, almost sickly tone. We see the world through the Stalker’s eyes, and for him, the outside world is devoid of life, muddy road pockmarked with standing water. When the characters enter the Zone, the film shifts to a wide array of colors, reflecting the wonder and mystery of this strange land. There is a shift in perspective in the third act of the film where Tarkovsky plays with those colors and where they appear that begins to say some grand things about human psychology and misery.
The Zone never becomes overrun with special effects or outlandish visuals. The incursions are subtle and typically invisible. They are auditory or small distortions in space-time. At one point, the trio must brave the Grinder, a tunnel filled with jagged stalactites and stalagmites. The journey is perilous but leads them to a place just outside the Room where we start to learn the truth about why these men have come here, an incredibly witty and profound conversation that reveals the big ideas of the picture, especially how Stalker views his relationship with the Zone.
For an apocalyptic movie, there’s a strange sense of optimism near the end. The film’s primary arc is Stalker coming to terms with why he feels drawn to the Zone and how he has neglected his family. His wife has fallen into drug use as a means of numbing herself to the conditions of life. His daughter, Monkey, seems mentally disabled or harmed in some way. It’s in the final scenes as Stalker contemplates how society has lost its way, shown in both his inability to traverse the Zone any longer and how he has allowed his family to crumble that the themes genuinely come together. The very final moment hints that this is not the end of humanity, that there is a hopeful promise still out there, though small but powerful.