Glance no more than once at the synopsis and one might figure Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker less a Soviet sci-fi slow-burn than an ambitious American studio tent-pole release. Freely adapted by the Brothers Strugatsky from their novel Roadside Picnic, Stalker, which begins a week-long engagement today at the Ritz at the Bourse, traces a day-long quest fronted by the eponymous Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), as he guides two unnamed intellectuals, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Tarkovsky regular Nikolai Grinko), through a cordoned off wasteland known as the Zone. Their ultimate destination: the Room, a mystical space that possesses the power of (subconscious) wish fulfillment.
As realized, Stalker is a 163-minute arthouse rendering of that high-concept pitch, a contemplative journey of a distraught soul navigating others through an uncompromising environ which revels in largo camera pirouettes and a ruminative pace. For all the fringe world-building and fantastical trappings that abound — none more chilling than the Zone’s apparent sentience, allowing it to shift its own geographical layout so as to mislead its visitors — Stalker downplays standard drama and narrative momentum in favor of funneling its speculative and philosophical conceits through the filter of transcendentalism.
Praised by Ingmar Bergman as “the greatest of them all”, director Andrei Tarkovsky, nonetheless, has garnered a reputation from some as being one of more “difficult” arthouse darlings; with his deeply idiosyncratic style, metaphysical threads, and Slow cinema tendencies, penetrating the veneer of his cinema proves a challenge for even the most ardent cinephiles. Of all his films, however, Stalker might be his most accessible, bearing a greater surface resemblance to those dour 1970s New Hollywood excursions into the heart of darkness than one might suspect: there’s more than a few beats here which recall the perilous voyages at the heart of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Friedkin’s Sorcerer — in broad stokes, all three films share the notion of archetypal personas trekking into a foreign region rife with corporeal and metaphorical hazards. Even more unexpected, however, is the film’s tendency to rhyme with, of all things, The Wizard of Oz, as the three characters venture through a cautionary landscape, with Tarkovsky and cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky shifting from sepia-toned monochrome to muted color once the three cross over into the Zone. (While the greens of Zone shrubbery pop off the screen, Stalker jettisons Oz‘s prettified Technicolor schemes in favor of a deliberate drabness.) One could even see this as Tarkovksy’s aesthetic response to Antonioni’s use of color in Red Desert, which he found “pretentious”, with the existentially fraught protagonists wandering through similar industrial badlands.
These commonalities soon dissolve as “plot” takes a backseat to Stalker‘s formal agenda, which is just as ascetic as its titular character. Tarkovsky once referred to filmmaking as “sculpting in time” and Stalker, with its meditative camera-style that, intermittently, drifts toward a stream-of-consciousness mode, is true to his sense of cinema; a scene of the three travelers slugging their way through a grimy sewer pipe protracts action, obsessively capturing every step while water drips and metal creaks, so as to portray each ensuing gesture, be it actorly or cinematographic, as seemingly monumental. In fact, there are stretches of drama wherein one almost loses a sense of time: static compositions of characters creeping through tall grass, hurling rope through the air to detect indicators of danger, populate much of the early Zone scenes, and some of the latter half’s most introspective beats are emphasized by an omniscient gaze, as if to suggest a lonely soul wandering through space. Such unyielding technique will likely cause exhaustion, even boredom, for some audiences, but those willing to surrender to these rhythms and ride the wave are unlikely to forget the spell the movie weaves. There’s such a peerless tactility to the images and their collective orchestration that one senses Tarkovsky reinventing cinema rhetoric right before our eyes — you practically feel the frames occupying the screen.
To pin down a definitive reading of Stalker would be an injustice to its labyrinthine nature, as it represents a cinematic Rorschach test of sorts: what you get out of it ultimately depends on what you bring to it. Of course, it’s undeniably a work of faith, as well as a series of impressions delineating the oppressive living conditions under Soviet rule. As the characters near their destination, the allegorical convictions manifest: the Professor warns of the potential atrocities in store should sinister-minded opportunists be granted access to the Room, while the Stalker likens the aforementioned realm to an elusive, spiritual shrine which he dare not enter. While simply declaring Tarkovsky’s film a response to the USSR’s atheistic agenda might be a tad reductive, it only serves to magnify the irony that, despite tiffs concerning the slow-fuse pace, Goskino granted the film a domestic run.
Janus Films’ theatrical presentation of Mosfilm’s 2K restoration serves not only as a corrective to the myriad murky home video iterations Stalker has endured over the years, but as a chance for the movie to reach a new generation of cinephiles. Embraced by NYC crowds, where its exclusive opening weekend run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center yielded the highest weekend-PTA after Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2., Stalker is set to pervade American arthouses with its oneiric ambiance and haunting je ne sais quoi — those long, still shots of the desolate Zone eerily look toward the real-life effects of Chernobyl. At long last, audiences can revel in a pristine print and soundtrack of this high-wire act, as performed by cinema’s master time sculptor. There won’t be a better theatrical release all year.