Stalker ★★★

Even more stunningly shot than Solaris, though not nearly as haunting or thought-provoking. Stalker combines two approaches that reliably leave me cold, especially in concert; it practically begs to be analyzed and interpreted, while at the same time being endlessly didactic about its broadly-sketched ideas. It’s intriguing for a while— again, this looks incredible, using depth of field as strikingly as anything I’ve seen in the Academy ratio– but it ultimately relies on character arcs that never engaged or convinced me. My problem might be summarized best by the director himself, allegedly responding to government criticism: “I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman.” That’s already a sure-fire recipe for something I’d find both oppressively dour and dramatically inert, assuming he’s not talking about Smiles of a Summer Night. I appreciate that those directors have their admirers, but I’m much more interested in the views of Tarkovsky.

Again, I love Solaris, which is no walk in the park. But where that film found emotional resonance in its endless despair and sci-fi premise, Stalker eventually settles for meandering ruminations that never fulfil the promise of its set-up. The Zone itself is a terrific idea, especially the way that the threat never becomes clear and Tarkovsky makes the invisible obstructions seem as real as anything we can actually see. As long as we’re free to soak in the crisp, eerie visuals, I was along for the ride. Parts of the film seem to be yellowing like an old photograph, as if you could blow on it and dust would fill the air, making the transitions to color always galvanizing. Other truly mysterious touches, like Stalker’s daughter’s psychic powers, are at least enticingly ambiguous.

Except that that nobody stops talking. Which is only an issue because all the characters are strictly mouthpieces, tellingly referred to as simply the Writer, the Professor, and the Stalker; the Writer pontificates about art, the Professor about science, and the Stalker (late in the game and rather unconvincingly) about the elites and intelligentsia lacking faith. Even Stalker’s little-seen wife suddenly gets her own monologue about there being no hope without sorrow. But by that point it feels like the film’s cavalcade of ideas have nowhere to go except pouring out of the characters’ mouths, and I just didn’t find much of it that illuminating or profound. Moments like the Writer putting on a crown of thorns and declaring “I don’t forgive you” just insist too much on their symbolic import, without first engaging us on the more basic level that would make it resonate.

I was especially unmoved by the climax that unfolds like a little chamber drama outside the Room. There’s too little dramatic groundwork for it to work as the one-act play it resembles, so I just didn’t buy the characters’ abrupt insistence on having had mind-changing emotional journeys. And everything afterwards feels awkwardly overextended, as if searching for an endpoint. Stalker is still a beautiful and occasionally fascinating film, just one that never comes together into something as interesting as where it starts; maybe when it comes to something this ambitiously thoughtful, man cannot live on style alone. I know it’s heretical to wish Soderbergh had remade this instead of Tarkovsky’s other philosophical sci-fi film, but I have to admit that I was left more interested in The Zone than in Stalker.

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