Stalker ★★★★★

Almost four years after my first viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky's masterful sci-fi rumination Stalker, I finally watched it a second time. When I saw it for the first time, I spent hours upon hours delving into YouTube essays and written commentaries regarding the meaning of Stalker; I thought that would have sufficiently prepared me for a second exposure to Stalker, but as it turns out, once again I had to frequently jump to the Wikipedia summary in order to actually understand the narrative developments.

Needless to say, Stalker is a demanding and difficult film. Even though the 4.4 average rating on Letterboxd might indicate otherwise, I have no trouble understanding why many viewers struggle to find the value in Stalker. I would theorize that many people gave it a 5-star rating in order to avoid being judged as 'dumb' or 'not getting it' by others, hence its high average score. Seeing that I have done so myself in the past, it would not be the widest stretch of the imagination, but it is also an explanation that would underestimate just how beautiful and detailed a work Stalker is at its core.

The cinematography is one of the most talked-about aspects of this film, and it is not difficult to see why. The production values almost seem minimalist, utilizing natural settings and realistic environments to create an otherworldly place, a landscape where monumental ideas and concepts are conveyed, echoing Tarkovsky's desire to explore the human consciousness as an integral force running parallel to the human place in nature. Distinctive uses of a versatile color palette paint a dystopian future with undefined preceding conflicts, channeling blurred sepia tones and lush reflections of the natural landscape to convey a striking sense of world-building. Tarkovsky makes you feel like you are entering a strange, unexplored planet for the first time, even when it is actually our own Earth.

Like some of the most heralded masterpieces, Stalker itself was no stranger to troubled production schedules – after a year of shooting the film, it was discovered that the stock footage was unusable, and Tarkovsky almost gave up before deciding to bring this ambitious, textually sprawling work to life once again. His dedication ended up sealing Tarkovsky's own fate, as the director – among with other people working on the set – died years later due to the extensive exposure to toxic chemicals after filming at a deserted chemical factory close to Tallinn, Estonia.

I will not even begin to dive into the narrative and the thematic implications of Tarkovsky's film. This has so much to say, even when it says nothing during its unedited, realistic shots that sometimes take as long as several minutes. The philosophical nature of Stalker is carried out both through dialogue and subtext, showcasing what Tarkovsky had to say on multiple layers. Its thematic richness overwhelms; not a single scene passes without the director imposing heavy ideas and concepts, each of which would be enough for their own film to explore.

Despite the endless appeal of its philosophical nature, Stalker also occasionally fails to hold the attention. With its excessively slow pacing and storytelling, you will feel like watching a painting of art for the entirety of its two-and-a-half hour runtime, and no matter how great a painting it is, if the subtext it communicates goes over your head, this has the potential to become the most boring experience of a lifetime. I had to remind myself numerous times to pay attention again, as it is so easy to let your thoughts drift away while watching a film like this. This is not the film for people with a short attention span, but it was never meant to be. When a soviet governmental critic assessed Stalker as lacking dynamic and pace, Tarkovsky replied, "The film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts."

So, truth be told, while I love the filmmaking and the gorgeous visuals and the themes that are tackled, I do not love this film itself. Its weighty thematic baggage is wrapped in a slow, meandering vision without any spark driving the narrative forward, resulting in a visionary film that demands the viewer's mental commitment, and that alone is already more than enough reason for why this film is not for everyone. But I am endlessly fascinated by its thematic implications and the deeply provoking, thought-inspiring philosophical nature of it all. Still, the fact that I am spending hours writing this review and looking up analyses and in-depth essays of Stalker should speak volumes of my appreciation for this film. Tarkovsky has a way of making you feel like an inferior trespasser perching in the shadows of greater minds, but isn't that also part of what makes a film great, the fact that only the rarest of people could reach such a level of greatness?

Included in: 1979 | Andrei Tarkovsky | Great Movies

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