Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 science fiction film, “Stalker”, is based on a novella called “Roadside Picnic” written by sci-fi Russian novelists Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The original story deals with aliens having visited earth and left behind various equipment and such of advanced technological nature. The places these things reside in have become danger zones, as some are affected by the alien’s visitation. People have begun straggling around the areas around the “Zone” and some venture within illegally to recover these alien artifacts; they are called “Stalkers”. One in particular is called the “golden sphere”, which is rumored to be able to grant anyone his or her greatest desires.
The film adaptation changes things a little, as it follows three men in search of a room that will grant their greatest wishes. They are led by a “stalker”, one who illegally traverses the “Zone” on a regular basis and hires himself out as an escort to the “room”. He tries to provide for his wife and child named Monkey who has no legs. We meet the “stalker” in his humble abode with his wife and child as he prepares yet another trip into the “Zone”. He is hired by a scientist and a writer to journey into the “Zone” in search of the room, meeting them in a bar and from there they evade the police constantly patrolling the vicinity around the “Zone. After finally crossing into the “Zone”, the “stalker” warns them to be careful and to respect the It, for It can kill them. He throws out metallic nuts to test areas for safety on their journey, when they finally do reach the room the scientist and the writer begin to disbelieve in its power to grant anyone anything, and the scientist reveals he plans to destroy it with a bomb for the simple logic that if it can will anyone their greatest desires, then in the wrong hands it would be detrimental to all of mankind. The writer agrees with the scientists, but the “stalker” tries to stop them, for the “Zone” and the room itself are literally all he has in the world to live for. It is his livelihood. In the end, they decide to leave it alone.
Like any Tarkovsky film, this is a very long drawn out sci-fi epic, not suited for impatient audiences. The film remains a prophetic sci-fi cautionary tale for Russian society, as it predates the Chernobyl disaster by about seven years. Tarkovsky is a master craftsman of cinema, as he doesn’t just make films, he makes thought-provoking works of art. The first time it was filmed the original negatives were destroyed in a lab, so the whole film was shot all over again. It features amazing poetic fluid shots of desolate landscapes, the most unsanitary water ever to be photographed, and gritty sepia-toned passes into the post-apocalyptic world outside of the “Zone”. He captures a distant life of contemporary society with songs like “Ode to Joy” billowing from a passing train.
There aren’t actually any conclusive science fiction ideas in the film like alien visitors, but you are left, as the director wants to leave you, questioning whether it was ever real or not. Andrei Tarkovsky had a recurring theme in his films that show men searching for God or meaning of life. With that rationale, you can see perhaps what his message with this film was. As I look at it, it is layered to mean many things to many different people, but the simplest approach is to see the “stalker” as a believer in faith, and the writer and scientist as many of us in society are cruel realists too much in this world. As the ending may seem to prove, even a little beacon of hope remains vitally important.