Stalker is Andrei Tarkovsky’s horror film. Well, ok, it isn’t like any proper definition of horror cinema you or I have ever encountered, but it is as close as the famously warm, spiritual wielder of human hopes and dreams ever dared to go, and it proves he had another career in him if he wanted to.
In a bit of irony, it was released just one year before Stanley Kubrick’s cryptic, baroque horror masterpiece, The Shining, and the differences and similarities in the two directors’ trademarked styles – occupying the same region of film land and yet as diametrically opposite as any two directors could hope to be – was never more apparent. Kubrick was a merciless, malevolent demon of a director who was always playing, but whose definition of play was as cold and mirthless (although it certainly provided bushels of mirth for him) as anyone’s. Horror fit his style as naturally as any genre did, and The Shining is as careful and meticulous a study in everything that made Kubrick Kubrick as any of his films, even his seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tarkovsky was arguably the ultimate cinematic humanist, and for all his challenging work behind the camera, he was just dying to use his cinema as a way to fall in love with life all over again.
That is not, one might assume, proper grazing ground for a horror film, which is why, all these years later, Stalker remains unlike any other film in existence, a perplexing, beguiling deconstruction of the idea of warmth and coldness in cinema and a film that seems to pine for new conceptions of mood and feeling altogether. It is almost akin to the dissonance circling around the Kubrick-Spielberg collaboration AI Artificial Intelligence, although if Stalker shows Tarkovsky experimenting with darkness within his own idiosyncratically warm standards, it is all Tarkovsky, and it could not be confused for the work of any other auteur before or since.
For starters, it is about as explicitly mythic and parable-focused as the director of art fables ever dared to go, with three figures, the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn), and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) venturing out into the dark trenches of modern human destruction and dehumanization to a nebulous sector of the world known as “the Zone”. Within this Zone apparently lies a “Room” capable of fulfilling any human’s greatest dreams and wishes, but to get there, they must confront humankind’s worst fixations and impulses.
A description which lends the piece the tang of an adventure picture, which it adamantly shuns and avoids at every turn, becoming instead a languorous, lurching low-hung wail of baritone human woe. Tarkovsky, as you and I know him, is in full effect in Stalker; the homegrown, earthen, destroyed world that feels both like next door and an alien place-of-the-mind, the lusciously drifting camera coaxing the characters along in a plane of abstract torment and beauty intertwined, the refusal to cut when he can linger still and let his images and ethereal aural skeletons permeate further into the night sky. All are vintage Tarkovsky, and all feel like the flip-side of, the variation on, and the accompaniment and addendum to Solaris, his earlier masterwork, itself a quasi-re-reading of Kubrick’s speculative, chilling 2001: A Space Odyssey. This duo of Tarkovsky films, one eminently humanistic and the other punishingly humanistic, feel like the man’s treatise of science fiction as the proving ground for humanity’s worst fears and brightest hopes.
While Solaris nominally retained the physical signifiers of geometric hard science fiction – the computers and the futuristic ships – Stalker lowers things further into the murk of humanity and elevates the tale by reducing it to its elemental, primordial origins of three humans cavernously excavating new ideological and emotional ground. These three do not ascend into space, nor do they descend into the ocean, nor do they bend time inwards to return to the past or briskly stride through to the future; they simply walk, and what they find they will not know. “The Zone” represents an elemental distillation of all science fiction dreams; the specifics of its existence don’t matter, for it is the mythic parable placeholder for all science fiction. The limbo the three men must pass through to arrive there is the negative mirror-image of the adventure of a science fiction film, the quest humanity must so frequently undergo to reach the heights of its aspirations. Alexander Knyazhinsky’s glorious cinematography, highly contrasted between blinding whites and Lovecraftain blacks early on and brimming with colors both muted and lush afterward, speaks to Tarkovsky’s treatment of the profound negative space between human highs and lows, and it bends genres to connect the noir with the science fiction as two genres focused primarily on human dreams and human nightmares. The early portions of the film deliberately recall the chiaroscuro science fiction horror films of the atomic age of the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still chief among them.
Which is why, although Tarkovsky had little use for narrative or genre cinema in the conventional sense, his intoxicated diagonal take on the science fiction idea upholds the elegant primacy and brutal necessity of science fiction as a genre that sees mankind coping with its needs and its wants and the hell it may put itself through to pursue them. He doesn’t have need for the limitations of the genre, but he sees possibility in an interpretation of it; for him sci-fi was not a narrow corridor or holy writ but a prismatic opportunity to adapt into his own vernacular in the key of time and space, a new lens through which to pursue his own dreams of humankind’s future. He approached the genre as an old friend he never knew he had but found ideological company in.
Yet, and thus is the beauty of Stalker, Tarkovky is Tarkovsky, and while Kubrick frequently seemed eager to run to nihilism at any turn, the Soviet filmmaker throws caution to the wind and defiantly poses optimism and humanism as the governing lights simmering and burning in the darkness. Encased by the No Man’s Land of the dark and dirty cinema of the 1970s, Stalker feels boldly disorderly and obstinate as a last bastion to hope and love. It was released at the end of arguably the most nihilist decade of international cinema (appropriately for an increasingly cynical world beset by poverty and the crippling awareness of the limits of globalization and a world forever decreasing in size and losing the hope of an unknown future to push forward to). It was released in a decade when science fiction ceased to mean dreams of the future and curdled to imply nightmares about the present. And a great much of Stalker is a harsh howl of a film, as perfect a cinematic representation of emptiness and No Man’s Land and the entire 1970s as cinema has provided and one of the finest treatments on the subject in any medium.
But, when the dust settles, it feels more like a requiem for human aspiration and possibility, a rejection of the cynicism of an entire decade even as it humbly and necessarily admits the necessity of that cynicism. The “Zone” feels like an encapsulation of the darkness of the 1970s, and Stalker the film seems like Tarkovsky’s attempt to throw himself into that darkness for once and dare himself to come out the other end with his humanism and his aspiration for goodness tested but in tact. Stalker’s majesty is that it feels like Tarkovsky’s great moment of self-doubt, his moment on the cross, his sacrificial testing of his own commitment to humanity. It feels like a willful attempt to put himself through the ringer, to doubt his own impulses as too quixotic for the modern age. In the end, the ever-brimming hope of the Russian bard of cinema comes out harder and faster still, worn by damage and conflict, but burning nonetheless. Stalker is the great marker of everything Tarkovsky stood for, a light in the dark, and all the more important because of how often it threatens to dip into a darkness that lasts forever. It is Tarkovsky acquainting himself with the dark-side, and returning brighter than he ever did.