“Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, an allegorical science fiction film like his earlier Solaris, was adapted from the novel Picnic by the Roadside by brothers Boris Strugatsky and Arkady Strugatsky. The film follows three men -- the Scientist (Nikolai Grinko), the Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), and the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) -- as they travel through a mysterious and forbidden territory in the Russian wilderness called the "Zone." In the Zone, nothing is what it seems. Objects change places, the landscape shifts and rearranges itself. It seems as if an unknown intelligence is actively thwarting any attempt to penetrate its borders. In the Zone, there is said to be a bunker, and in the bunker: a magical room which has the power to make wishes come true. The Stalker is the hired guide for the journey who has, through repeated visits to the Zone, become accustomed to its complex traps, pitfalls, and subtle distortions. Only by following his lead (which often involves taking the longest, most frustrating route) can the Writer and the Scientist make it alive to the bunker and the room. As the men travel farther into the Zone, they realize it may take something more than just determination to succeed: it may actually take faith. Increasingly unsure of their deepest desires, they confront the room wondering if they can, in the end, take responsibility for the fulfillment of their own wishes.” – rovi’s AllMovie Guide
In the opinion of Mark Adomanis, as stated in a 2013 article for Forbes Magazine, “Russia is a country that, quite obviously, has a lot of problems. Its political system is repressive, its economy is riddled with corruption, its population is aging (or, depending on your interpretation, dying out), people drink a lot, the railroads are in bad shape and the roads in worse, and the weather sucks. As if that litany of terrors wasn’t enough, Russia also has the great misfortune of having rude and unhelpful dry cleaners. Given all of those problems, it’s a small miracle the country still exists at all.” The sad thing is, Adomanis was actually writing that article to point out how much better Russia is today than it was just a few short decades ago. You know, back around the time Andrei Tarkovsky made Stalker.
Yeah, I think it’s safe to say Stalker is bleak, so much so that the setting alone is probably enough to encourage thoughts of suicide in some people. Tarkovsky modeled the Zone to which his protagonists travel after the area surrounding Mayak, the Russian nuclear weapons facility which suffered an accident in 1957 and subsequently dumped untold amounts of toxic waste into the nearby countryside. According to one document, “hundreds of square miles were left barren and unusable for decades and maybe centuries. Hundreds of people died, thousands were injured and surrounding areas were evacuated.” When a group of scientists were allowed into the region in 1992, they declared the area the most polluted spot on Earth. So the movie has that going for it visually.
Of course, the director is Tarkovsky, so all the barren desolation is some of the best looking barren desolation you’re likely to see. The man’s an artist, after all, and this is an art film. Oh, I know Stalker’s always located in the sci-fi section when you try to find it to rent, but that’s just a technicality. Other than the conceit of the room that inexplicably grants wishes and a couple of scenes of a glass being moved across a table by telekinesis, there’s nothing particularly sci-fi about the film. What there is a lot of talking. Talking about life, philosophy, politics, love, and lots of other serious stuff. Talking while sitting on rocks looking at the sky, talking while leaning against half collapsed buildings, talking while lying in streams watching debris float just beneath the surface. That, my friends, is art.
And it’s imperative you know that it’s art before you press play on Stalker, because it’s three full hours of art. So if you’re hoping for three hours of robots, time travel, and aliens, don’t bother with Stalker. But if three hours of talking, albeit good looking talking, sounds like something you’re in the mood for, then this is the movie for you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really interesting talking, full of big ideas, existential angst, and metaphysical musings. Oh, and there’s enough allegory to write a thesis on. I mean, come on, the main characters are the Professor, the Writer, and the Stalker. So if you guessed there’s a lot of arguing about the conflicts between science, art, and religion, award yourself a kewpie doll. But still, it’s a lot of talking.
If you can stick with it, though, you might just find the slog worth it. There’s a reason Stalker has a rare 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s not just because we movie critics are pretentious snobs (well, not all of us anyway). The imagery and the ideas stick with you, and there’s so many notions thrown out there that you can revisit the movie multiple times and find a new train of thought to follow each time. One scene can set you off musing for hours. Take the moment when the trio finally makes it to The Room, for example. At points along the journey, they’ve been discussing a previous stalker named The Porcupine who made his way through the Zone with the intention of asking the Room to restore his dying brother’s health. Instead, The Room fulfills The Porcupine’s secret desire for wealth, at which point he commits suicide out of guilt (guilt, mind you, not simply because of the setting). The men come to understand that The Room grants a heart’s true longing, not necessarily a person’s spoken wishes. With that knowledge, they’re faced with the dilemma of whether or not they should actually enter The Room, lest their hearts reveal the truth about what they really want most in this world.
It’s a sobering scenario to contemplate on this day celebrating the baptism of Jesus. As the Catechism notes, “Jesus' public life begins with his baptism by John in the Jordan… The baptism of Jesus is on his part the acceptance and inauguration of his mission as God's suffering Servant.” And his mission passes on to all who are baptized in his name. “By Baptism they share in the priesthood of Christ, in his prophetic and royal mission… Having become a member of the Church, the person baptized belongs no longer to himself, but to him who died and rose for us. From now on, he is called to be subject to others, to serve them in the communion of the Church, and to ‘obey and submit’ to the Church's leaders, holding them in respect and affection… ‘Reborn as sons of God, [the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church’ and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God.”
But what would The Room actually reveal for those of us who have been baptized were we to venture into The Zone to find it? Would our heart’s desire really be to carry out God’s mission, to do the things it requires? Or would there be other stuff in there which we’ve put first? What would The Room show us? Would we really want to find out, or would we find ourselves like the Professor, the Writer, and the Stalker, frozen outside the doorway in fear of discovering what our heart’s truly treasure? A bleak thought? Maybe. But it is a Tarkovsky movie, after all. They can’t all be shiny robots and laser beams.