Stalker (1979)

aka Сталкер

2018 #100
Andrei Tarkovsky | 162 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG


Described by the blurb on its Criterion Collection Blu-ray release as “a metaphysical journey through an enigmatic post-apocalyptic landscape”, Stalker is… probably that… I guess…?

Adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which, according to critic Mark Le Fanu in Criterion’s booklet, is more hardboiled pulp than artistic thinkpiece), it follows a professional ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky) — someone who can enter and navigate a mysterious restricted area known only as the Zone — as he guides two latest clients, a depressed writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and an inquisitive professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone and to the attraction at its heart: the Room, a place which is rumoured to grant a person’s innermost desires.

That’s the plot, anyway. Considering it’s over two-and-a-half hours long and I just summarised most of the story, you know it’s About more than that. But suffice to say I didn’t get it. It’s just some blokes wandering around, being depressed, occasionally philosophising about bugger all; then the ‘stalker’ chap is depressed even more by his clients’ attitude at the end, for some reason; and then we see his kid has telepathic powers because… um… People think director Andrei Tarkovsky’s previous sci-fi film Solaris is slow and obtuse, but it’s pacy and its meaning is crystal-clear compared to Stalker. Indeed, watching this just made me want to watch Solaris again — that was a slow Soviet sci-fi I actually found thought-provoking and interesting. One inspired thought I will credit it with is the notion of what “innermost desire” actually means. We might think we know, but do we? If the Room grants, not what we choose to ask it for, but our true innermost desire, then it reveals the truth of our self to us… and we might not like what we find.

Some blokes being depressed

The film “resists definitive interpretation” says Geoff Dyer in a featurette on Criterion’s Blu-ray. It’s “a religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself […it] envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings,” adds the blurb. Oy. So is it profound or just pretentious? I think the lack of clarity — the lack of definitive interpretation — can be used as evidence for both sides. Its acclaim would suggest most think it profound, so I’m the one missing something. That’s always possible. Also, I’m always wary of calling something “pretentious” — that’s become too much of a catch-all criticism for people who don’t understand an artwork and want to blame the work itself rather than their own intellectual capabilities. So we’ll have to settle on me just not understanding it.

Some of it does look good, at least… which is handy when long stretches of it are just staring at things in unbroken takes (there’s something like 142 shots, which is about one cut every 88 seconds). Whatever the film is or isn’t trying to say, I feel fairly certain it didn’t need to take so much time to say it.

Equal parts Annihilation but without the exciting stuff, privileged white male angst, and flicking through a photo album of deserted urban environments at someone else’s too-slow pace — with strange dashes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and X-Men Origins: Jean Grey for good measure — Stalker is… definitely something.

2 out of 5

Stalker was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

Solaris (1972)

aka Solyaris

2010 #113
Andrei Tarkovsky | 159 mins | TV | PG / PG

I don’t know if you’re aware of a website, dear reader, called It’s one of those (many, I believe) sites where you can tick off which movies you’ve seen — in this case, not just any movie (though that’s changing ‘soon’), but movies from certain well-known lists. Well, it used to be just well-known(-ish) lists, but it’s constantly broadening its horizons and… Anyway. My point is this: some movies only crop up on one list (lots of the Shorts, for instance), while others manage two or three or four, but (as you’d no doubt expect) some crop up on loads. It’s a handy way to see that, too.

Solaris, for instance, is on IMDb’s list of the best sci-fi films (#39) and films from the ’70s (#43); it’s on They Shoot Pictures…’s 1,000 Greatest Films (#227), Empire’s 500 Greatest Movies (#285), 10th on Total Sci-Fi’s 100 Greatest Sci-Fi Movies, 53rd on Arts and Faith’s 100 Spiritually Significant Films, and included in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies; not to mention half a dozen other general greatest/must-see lists featured on iCheckMovies.

What does all that matter? Not a great deal, I suppose — film appreciation is subjective ‘n’ all — but it does leave it with a weight of expectation. The fact that it’s the better part of three hours long, in Russian, and notoriously slow-paced, adds a different kind of weight. It’s quite easy to see how Soderbergh felt able to remake it into just 90 minutes (and he still made a slow-paced film).

And it’s true, parts are like an endurance test — Berton’s seemingly endless drive through a future cityscape (actually just ’70s Tokyo), for instance — but, though still glacially paced, most of the film has some discernibly relevant content. Provided you’re not expecting Star Wars, that is, but who in their right mind would be? Talking of things being discernibly relevant, the film occasionally switches into black & white for no reason I can readily discern. Explanations welcome in the comments.

Though ostensibly science fiction — it’s set on a space station orbiting a possibly sentient planet that’s doing Funny Things to the crew — Solaris isn’t concerned with the scientific implications of any of its concepts. While I’m going to come up short on providing detailed analysis, it seems to me Tarkovsky’s adaptation is more concerned with memory, loss, grief and what it means to be human/alive. The planet, which somehow creates tangible people — not mere shared hallucinations — from the memories of the crew, is used as a way in to these things Tarkovsky clearly wishes to consider. The sentient(?) planet is not an end in itself; the film spends no time considering what this different kind of consciousness (if it is a consciousness) means, how it might work, or any other scientifically-bent notions that other films or filmmakers might choose to focus on. It also doesn’t centre on the romantic side of events, the route Soderbergh chose to pursue; or, if it does, it does so coldly and clinically and doesn’t feel romantic in the slightest. Alternatively, that could be the point.

Solaris is one of those films I think we can safely say is Not For Everyone. There’s much to ponder for the so inclined, not least the intriguing ending. I feel certain I, much like the scientists in the film itself, have barely scratched the surface.

4 out of 5

Read my considerably more thoughtful (if I do say so myself) review of Steven Soderbergh’s remake here.