Stalker ★★★★★

If you only ever watch one Tarkovsky film, make it this one. I don’t pretend to know what it’s about, but that’s also part of its intriguing appeal. A deeply oblique, open-ended journey that resists simplistic “this=that” analysis.

Its premise is totally mystifying: two men enlist the skills of a tour guide (known as a “stalker”) to take them deep into a heavily-guarded swampland known as The Zone. Once there, they are guided towards The Room, a place where deep wishes are granted. 

That’s pretty much the plot. But my goodness, the level of wonder it provokes. It takes its sci-fi premise and excises all narrative fat, leaving you with a simple but utterly infected sense of awe. What does it all mean?

It’ll mean different things to different people, and it’s level of awe and mystery and fear and dread will be in direct porportion to your personal baggage.

The Zone and The Room are mysterious places that conjure all sorts of speculation. Quarantined with barbwire by a military state that fears its powers, you might see these places as deeply autobiographical, pointing to Tarkovsky’s life.

There are, for example, unspoken rules and ill-defined maps the Stalker possesses on how to safely navigate The Zone. Obedience to his direction feels like giving heed to an expert rogue, someone who’s worked within restricted and totalitarian spaces before.

Visually, it feels like a prison break, Cold War fantasy. A restricted, polluted landscape populated by characters who yearn for The Room’s intimate secrets and knowledge reveals a desire for freedom in a world that’s only ever imprisoned their dreams.

Autobiography is certainly present, but it only takes you so far. STALKER casts an immensely spiritual, often-contradictory spell that’s hard to shake. It might be tempting to interpret its myriad symbols into swift answers, but it ultimately denies them.

Getting lost in the mood of this story and all its rich imagery is, I think, very much the point. Don’t get too bogged down trying to figure it all out. You won’t. It’s endlessly pliable. Lots of trap doors to fall down. 

Let it wash over you.

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