This week’s Criterion Review wanders into the realm of science fiction with Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, Stalker. It is a gorgeous, sprawling film that meditates on nuclear war, finding one’s purpose in life, and even religion. Despite covering such a wide variety of themes, Stalker is a film that will take your breath away with each drop of water.
Stalker begins in a post-apocalyptic city outside of the mysterious Zone. This city is washed in sepia tones, making it appear perpetually dusty and dirty, a place where there is not much of anything except people questioning what lies in The Zone. This strange zone was supposedly caused by a meteor crashing to Earth years ago, bringing with it destruction and confusion. The area is now overgrown, with buildings and cars littering the landscape like ghostly behemoths. In attempts to understand what lies in The Zone, a guide known as a Stalker takes a writer and professor into the restricted area. The Stalker is tasked with leading them to the Room, a place said to grant one’s every desire. The Stalker (Aleksandr Kajdanovsky) is familiar with The Zone’s ever-changing landscape and various tricks its unseen forces play on adventurers daring enough to search for its secrets. Together, the three men embark on a treacherous journey through the border and into dangerous territory.
If this reminds you of Alex Garland’s Annihilation, then you wouldn’t be too far off base. Stalker seems to be Garland’s main source of inspiration, though this film is much more subtle with its visual representation of an area infected by a mysterious force. However, Stalker is more contemplative and slow, moving through The Zone at a glacial pace to avoid any possible dangers its unseen forces can conjure up.
The one qualm I have with Stalker is the speed of its subtitles compared to the poetry of its dialogue. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with what each character is saying while also digesting the gravity of their words. These are not just three men gripping with each other as they venture closer to the Room; each ruminate on their lives and what it means to human. But, these poetic musings are difficult to understand with the way Criterion has restored its subtitles. A small complaint, yes, but one that impacts the overall appreciation and beauty of the film.
As my first Tarkovsky film, I am in awe of the beauty and scope of Stalker. It took my breath away when they first entered The Zone, and I was in a constant state of anxiety as the camera took the position of something watching from the bushes, or when a telephone began to ring. Don’t let its runtime sway you from this experience—and this is a cinematic experience. Pour yourself a glass of wine, get comfortable on the couch, and wander into The Zone.
Criterion Reviews is a series of short 500-word reviews of films released every week by Criterion Channel until the channel officially launches on April 8th. Reviews will be published every Saturday/Sunday. Don’t forget to sign up for the channel and support them!