Bryant Tyler’s review published on Letterboxd:
Based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Stalker was initially Tarkovsky’s attempt to achieve the classic Aristotelian unity of time, place and action. Departing radically from its source material, the resulting film explores the topic of faith, in order to explore the phenomenon of persistent disbelief.
A year into the filming, the crew discovered that all of the film had been improperly developed. The footage (on which Tarkovsky had toiled to achieve the Aristotelian Unity) was unusable, and he was faced with the decision to either abandon the project or start over. The resulting stress may have been what transformed the story from an alien visitation into an exploration of faith. After the loss of footage, Tarkovsky had sunken into a deep despondency, and his eventual recovery would be owed to his new faith in God (as evidenced by his journal entries at the time) and the catharsis through creating the film itself.
In addition to Stalker being a spiritual turning point for Tarkovsky, the production unfortunately impacted his physical life: Stalker shot on location in Estonia near a chemical plant. Throughout the filming, poisonous chemicals in the river caused illnesses in the crew. Three members of the crew - Anatoliy Solonitsyn, director Andrei Tarkovsky and his wife/assistant director Larisa Tarkovskaya - eventually died of bronchial cancer as a result of the chemical contamination, lending further poignancy to the film’s themes.
In the near future a supernatural event (possibly of extra-terrestrial origin) results in a region, named The Zone, with miraculous properties, the most significant of which is a room which purportedly can fulfill a person’s innermost desires. The government (presumably Soviet) has sealed off the area, assigning soldiers to stand guard with lethal intent. Despite these measures, a group called “Stalkers” have trained themselves to navigate through the military barricades and the supernatural obstacles that guard the wish-granting room.
The work of a Stalker is incredibly dangerous: nearly every Stalker has died from an overlooked danger of the Zone, and if they survive, the Stalkers often lose their sanity and their children become deformed.
It is theorized that The Zone is "a sign of life outside the planet," that it is “God's punishment for mankind's present evil and maliciousness," and that it had "originated from a meteorite." It is also implied that one can only reach the Zone if they were “meant to”, indicating that destiny and God’s will would be the reason, undergirding the broad belief in the meaning behind the Zone.
The word “zone” in Greek refers to a girdle or belt, more broadly a circle or perimeter. This idea always implies a center and The Zone emanates from the center: The Room, evoking the heart or spirit in the metaphor. A zone is a place where you change when you enter it, you have to abide by its rules. “Zoning laws” change what can exist within a space: a zone for the military, for example, is a place where the laws of the land are suspended, and often death is the penalty for breaking the laws in a zone.
Tarkovsky’s Zone is merely a field of potentiality, and the visitor is the one who must realize the potential. The Zone exists both at the beginning of time and the end of time, outside of time as if a doorway to the spiritual realm. This evokes the eternal, challenging the audiences perceptions of time. The Zone’s ‘alien’ artifacts are human artifacts, remnants of an old society, overgrown and swallowed up by nature freely taking its place again. There’s an Edenic quality to the Zone, a return to paradise and innocence. The way the Zone manifests is through distorting reality with the physical editing of the film itself. The Zone is more akin to a dream: it is a miracle, a supernatural event.
The supernatural events occur off-screen, the film only shows the after-effects and not the supernatural itself. This allows for a more unnerving and imaginative experience, rather than a typical science-fiction film which entirely unveils the conceptual framework of it’s world so the audience can clearly separate the real from the fictional.
It’s interesting to note that the many similarities to The Wizard of Oz (1939), as both films transition from sepia tones to full color when entering the mythical world (Oz and the Zone). Both films also feature a destination where wishes may be granted, an entrance cushioned by a bed of flowers, purported ‘deathtraps’ to propel the visitors to turn back, and even a small, black dog.
At the start of Stalker, a caption reads “What was it? A meteorite? A visit of inhabitants of the cosmic abyss? One way or another, our small country has seen the birth of a miracle”
The story follows a Stalker, who maintains a business guiding paying customers through The Zone. He does not understand The Zone, but states that "The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish." For the Stalker, his wife’s constant nagging and pleading to cease his dangerous trips past the militarized posts and through The Zone has weighed heavily on his psyche. While The Zone is inimical to human life, it is the only place where the Stalker can be truly be happy and content.
The Stalker’s latest clients are a Writer, seeking inspiration to cure his writer's block, and a Professor, intending to study the regions properties. The Writer and the Professor are referred to only by their occupations at the behest of the Stalker, who wants to protect the anonymity of his clients. These occupational titles frame the characters as archetypes.
The Writer has a comfortable life in high society, yet is discontent. The Writer believes in the transformative power of art, but he has lost his inspiration and has come to The Zone hoping that it will help him to write again. “What kind of a writer am I if I hate writing?” he asks, “I used to think someone would get better because of my books, nobody needs me.”
Furthermore, the Writer is characterized as a nihilist, someone who no longer believes in meaning or truth (a postmodernist one might say). “How would I know that actually I don’t want what I want, or that I actually don’t want what I don’t want?” He asks when contemplating the wish-granting Room “the moment we name them their meaning disappears, melting, dissolving like a jellyfish in the sun. My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world” he says “and my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat, what do I want?”
He continues to feed his skepticism and doubt, deciding not to enter the Room once the group arrives there. His agnosticism has given way to apathy. “Why do you think this miracle really exists?” he asks The Stalker, “who told you wishes come true here? Have you seen a single man who has been made happy here?”
The Professor is characterized as an atheist, he seldom speaks, as if the enterprise holds little interest to him, though characterization is provided by the Writer who continually contrasts their differing forms of unbelief. “That must be hard: searching for the truth,” the Writer says to him. “It’s hiding and you keep searching for it, while I am digging for the truth so much happens to it, that instead of discovering the truth I dig up a heap- pardon, I better not name it.” The Writer refers to that while the Professor does believe in truth (unlike the Writer), it is only the truth of scientific realm.
When the three men arrived inside the Zone, it would only be a short distance to the Room, however the Stalker insists that they journey through waterfalls and caves, over vast fields of grass and mounds of sand to get there. Taking the most indirect routes possible in pursuit of strips of cloth that he ties to metal nuts and tosses in seemingly random directions.
All of this repetition and caution may appear ludicrous, in the same way that religious rituals do to the atheist, but the Stalker insists that they are necessary to avoid the hidden dangers of the Zone and approach the Room with the respect it deserves. Hence the central tension of the film: is this really necessary? More specifically, is the Zone (it’s holy of holies: the Room), merely an elaborate scam perpetuated by the Stalker? Tarkovsky tests the viewer's belief in the supernatural by refraining from showing signs to verify the Stalker’s instructions, even a dog wanders through The Zone and isn't hurt by the traps, to provoke further skepticism.
There’s a point where the Professor has misplaced his knapsack, but because there is a precise series of moves/rules the Stalker uses to navigate The Zone, the Professor cannot go back to retrieve it. In the next scene, the landscape changes and the Writer and Stalker lose the Professor, but find him precisely where the napsack was left.
The argument is that these small miracles could have rational explanations, for example as we do not see the faces of Professor and the Stalker when the Writer hears the voice, many argue that one of them could have been the voice’s source. Perhaps the Writer and the Professor only think they traveled away from the Stalker, when in actuality they merely walked in a circle. Such explanations are reminiscent of how atheists can go out of their way to dismiss the small miracles encountered on a daily basis: the accident that should have resulted in death, the encounter that completely changes the direction of one’s life, the disease that suddenly goes into remission, etc. Essentially Tarkovsky makes the same point with the film, allowing the audience to directly experience God (or rather the Zone by proxy).
“I can see through you” the Writer says to the Stalker, “you don’t give a damn about people, you just make money, you’re enjoying yourself here. You’re God almighty here.” This may be an appropriate criticism, given the Stalker has never entered the Room himself, he has never directly experienced its power. Fearful of what might happen if he entered the Room, and plagued by doubt himself in regard to the room’s efficacy, he limits himself to the role of guide, rather than participant. The Stalker though is not to be compared to the Writer, he is not an agnostic, he merely has doubts.
As Miguel de Unamuno wrote “Those who believe that they believe in God, but without passion in their hearts, without anguish in mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the God idea, not God Himself.”
The Stalker’s misgivings stem from his inability to understand the Zone.
John Chrysostom said “a comprehended God is no God,'' referring to the inescapable apprehension we experience as a result of inherent inability to see or fully understand God.
For the Professor, the Zone is only a problem to needs to solve and his solution is to destroy the Room and the Zone. When at the doorstep to the miraculous Room, The Professor reveals a bomb to destroy the Zone, asking “do you realize what will happen when everybody believes in the room and all come rushing here?” He sees destructive fanaticism as the only phenomenon that The Room is capable of producing. He sees faith only as a fundamentally dangerous endeavor. He does not believe in the Room any more than the atheist believes in God, which is why he is eager to destroy it. In his mind, nothing would be worse than for conflict to emerge over such a ludicrous myth. This is why he does not enter the Room either, nor can he bring himself to attempt to destroy it: his disbelief in The Room’s power is such that he cannot even bomb it to test its power.
When the men stand at the threshold of the room, faced with the decision to enter The Room: their dialogue reveals that it not ‘any wish’ that is actualized in The Room: it is the “innermost wish”. No matter what the visitor thinks they want, what they truly desire will come true in The Room. However, a visitor cannot truly know what they want, as the Stalker says “your innermost wish comes from your essence, of which you know nothing.” For instance, earlier what Porcupine thought he wanted was his brother back, the Zone instead revealed that what he really wanted was money.
So through stepping into The Room, a visitor relinquishes the illusion of control over their own life to the unknown. This would be an absolute surrender.
Therefore, the Writer and Professor do not go into The Room because they do not want to lose control. Furthermore, at some level the Writer and the Professor know that their desire is impure, that they don’t actually want what they think they want, and do not want to confront the truth of their desire. This echoes St Paul’s lamentations:
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” Romans 7:15-20
Orthocox Christians know how dangerous it is to approach the chalice without preparation and the proper spirit of humility, and according to the Stalker, the same goes for the wish-granting Room. When the Writer and Professor ask what it takes to prove worthy of the Room, the Stalker replies that “most important, you have to believe”. Similar to a pre-communion petition, the Stalker prays “let them believe, and let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves, let them be helpless little children, because weakness is a great thing and strength is nothing, pliance and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being.”
The Writer has been representative of the resistant viewer, previously the most cynical, disbelieving, and resistant to see the Zone, in the end, he is the only one who does see it. At the end, the men are back to the bar where they started, and the camera isolates the Writer to emphasize his realization.
Upon returning home, the Stalker begins to see the ‘hope’ and ‘faith’ that he found in the Zone, he now sees in the city: the dog returns with them from the Zone, the isolated appearances of color associated with the Stalker’s mutant daughter Monkey, and the same daughter’s possible telekinetic powers. Upon returning the Stalker’s wife tells him that she married him because she’d rather have bittersweet happiness than a grey meaningless life: she would rather bear some unhappiness in order to have something to hope for, in order to have something left to desire.
The Stalker’s daughter, nicknamed Monkey (a symbolic name), was conceived and born near the contaminated area. At the end of the film, Monkey is shown concentrating and moves three glasses across a table with her mind, clarifying beyond doubt that the Zone indeed has power, that the doubts of Writer, Professor and Stalker are without justification. To further emphasize this factual revelation, Bethoven’s Ode To Joy accompanies the telekinetic feat.
As Atheism once held an alleur for Tarkovsky, just like his protagonist, he stared it in the face and found it wanting. “[They call] themselves intellectuals, these writers and scientists” the Stalker tells his wife “they don’t believe in anything! They’ve got the organ with which one believes atrophied for lack of use.”
Stalker was the turning point for Tarkovsky, the moment where he embraced truth over desire, the film in which he cast aside the passions from which doubt and denial arise.
More than any of his previous films, this film is abounding with Christian imagery and scripture, from Monkey’s voice-over reading, the book of Revelation, the crown of thorns the Stalker places on his head, to the Stalker’s wife claiming her husband is “not of this world,'' such references reveal an artist obsessed not merely with a general spirituality but a specific Christian account of sin, sacrifice and redemption. More revealing are Tarkovsky’s journal entries at the time, (published in English in 1989) where an entry reads “Lord, I feel you draw near, I can feel your hand on the back of my head, I want to see your world as you made it, and your people as you would have them be. I love you Lord, and want nothing else from you. I accept all that is yours, and only the weight of my malice and my sins, the darkness of my base soul prevent me from being your worthy slate, oh Lord.”