Stalker ★★★★★

"You dream of one thing, but you get quite another."

Stalker is incredibly complex and fairly impenetrable on first watch, so as a result this will be a combination of surface level analysis and dubious conjecture. Needless to say, this is exactly my brand of science fiction: it's heady, it's beautiful, it's unique. It's a film I don't expect I'll fully grasp without reading external analysis, and even then it's so open for interpretation that I hope to never have a completely solid idea of what it means. As the Stalker says, "Hardness and strength are death's companions."

The most obvious thing about Stalker is that it's gorgeous. It presents a dystopian post-industrial vision of Russia which lies in the ruin of an unspoken conflict. All the color is washed out into a gray-brown hodgepodge of rusty pipes and crumbling walls and dirty water. Then we enter the Zone, and suddenly everything is luscious and vibrant. There's grass and trees, and everything is bright green. But as we venture further into this uncharted territory, the ghost of the wasteland we tried to leave behind begins to haunt the image, bringing back its desaturated colors and inanimate, unnatural constructions. It is a voyage first and foremost in the visual register.

What is interesting about this visual range is that it never fails to present itself as reality despite its obvious surrealism. Characters walk between places with jarring dissimilarities, but it never feels out of place. It is all the Zone, and the landscape maintains a consistent persona despite its inconsistent appearance.

Stalker transports you to an alien world without the use of alien visuals with the help of its noninvasive cinematography, editing, and score. The camera is almost always immobile, and when it does move it's precise and measured. Thanks to abundantly long takes, the editor is capable of cutting infrequently and making the few quick cuts that much more unsettling. The soundtrack refrains from any sort of extradiegetic music, focusing solely on sounds the characters hear. This strict adherence to realism is essential to make the audience feel a part of what might otherwise be inaccessible and unbelievable.

What makes Stalker so difficult to understand on first watch is its incredible saturation with philosophical meditations. The three characters involved—the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor—form an ideological triumvirate. The Stalker stands for belief while his companions hold slightly different attitudes of cynicism. The Writer seems to have lost faith in the value of passion, constantly questioning the value of his work and whether it has the power to endure past his own life. The Professor seems to have lost faith in the value of knowledge, thinking that, instead of being inherently valuable, new discoveries will eventually be perverted by those without the ability to appreciate them.

Together these form the theoretical foundation for the ideological conflict between the characters, but at the same time the idea of the Zone itself plays with still more ideas. The room which grants wishes is the most ambiguous symbol in the film, and therefore seems most likely to find itself subject to multiple interpretations. For me it returns to the ideas of psychoanalysis: the room will grant your deepest desire (objet a), but this desire might not be what you think (because of the nature of the unconscious). Porcupine was traumatized by the room because it would only give him wealth: the confrontation with the unconscious truth of your identity (Id rather than Ego) is inherently traumatic. This is why, after their long and arduous journey, the three travelers ultimately cannot enter the room.

Stalker is definitely not for everyone. It's slow and ponderous, and it asks quite a lot of the audience not only in terms of mental endurance but also in terms of simple emotional investment. Narrative momentum is deliberately kept to a minimum, almost daring viewers not to like it. But anyone willing to make a commitment will find art and ideas enough for a lifetime.

Part of house sitting my parents' HDTV.
Added to Top 10 70's Sci-Fi and The Rewatch List.

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