Andrei Tarkovsky’s final Soviet feature is a metaphysical journey through an enigmatic postapocalyptic landscape, and a rarefied cinematic experience like no other. A hired guide—the Stalker—leads a writer and a scientist into the heart of the Zone, the restricted site of a long-ago disaster, where the three men eventually zero in on the Room, a place rumored to fulfill one’s most deeply held desires. Adapting a science-fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Tarkovsky created an immersive world with a wealth of material detail and a sense of organic atmosphere. A religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself—Stalker envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings.
Worthwhile journeys are rarely very easy. Rather than straightforward routes, it's often the most difficult paths laden with obstacles that lead us to the most rewarding destinations. And such is the case with Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker -- both in front of and behind the camera. On screen, the protagonists of the 1979 science fiction film undertake a risky expedition into a quarantined zone full of hazards. And during the production, the director faced his own set of costly challenges, including the loss of a year's worth of footage, forcing the crew to essentially reshoot the entire movie all over again. But in both cases, these two precarious roads eventually lead to a film worth every hurdle.
Loosely based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's novel "Roadside Picnic," the story focuses on a post-apocalyptic world in the wake of a mysterious disaster (implied to be alien in nature). As a consequence of the unexplained event, the government has closed off a section of the country now dubbed the "Zone." Though completely off-limits and said to be very dangerous, rumors persist that the region contains a special Room where visitors will be granted their greatest wish. To reach the Room, a writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and professor (Nikolai Grinko) hire a special guide called a "Stalker" (Alexander Kaidanovsky). After crossing over into the Zone, the Stalker attempts to escort the travelers through the area's perils, but the strange landscape might prove to be too treacherous to overcome.
Emphasizing the full breadth of the characters' journey, Tarkovsky takes his time setting up the expedition, slowly following the protagonists as they attempt to sneak into their destination. These early scenes outside of the Zone are all shot in a monochromatic sheen of bronze, introducing us to a drab and oppressive world devoid of color as the trio slips by the police via a faintly chaotic chase scene marked by a distinctly measured pace. This carefully drawn-out rhythm goes on to define the remaining runtime, helping to engender an almost hypnotic cadence.
Once we do eventually cross into the infamous Zone, the director signals the transition through a sudden shift to color, opening up the film's canvas to accommodate the eerie isolation of the landscape's deserted forests and decaying buildings. A palpable air of seclusion and a dreamy haze of confusion permeate these sequences, using long takes with slow camera movements or static compositions to extend the film's sense of time. This allows the characters to move through the mysterious space as the image gradually reframes with their steps or waits for them to exit the background only to re-enter into the foreground -- all without breaking the camera's sustained gaze.
A gaze which often feels like it has a subtle life of its own, personifying the Zone itself as the lens captures the film's travelers from a watchful distance, slowly making their way through some genuinely striking compositions. Images steeped in flooded industrial compounds, shadowy tunnels, and chambers full of cascading sand all leave a lasting, haunting impression -- evoking the somber atmosphere of a ghost world long since abandoned.
And what perils await in this supposedly harsh setting? Well, the film never really makes this entirely clear, but the Stalker insists that only certain paths are safe, refusing to take his companions in a straight line despite no apparent signs of danger. Instead, he throws metal nuts ahead of his steps, hoping to reveal traps. Again, Tarkovsky keeps the nature of these obstacles leading toward the Room vague, but certain moments imply that time and space might not operate by the same rules in the Zone as they do in the outside world.
Or do they? At the end of the day, much of the film's narrative and themes wrestle with the concept of faith. Are the Zone's threats real? Can the Room truly grant one's deepest desires? They're questions the characters debate themselves, along with other heady philosophical concepts tied to happiness and purpose as the protagonists gradually reveal their true intentions and hidden insecurities.
These metaphysical quandaries present no easy answers, implying but never quite fully illuminating connections to religion, politics, and art. To this end, there are times when Tarkovky's intentions may have actually benefited from a bit more clarity. The final shot, though quite powerful on its own, feels particularly disconnected from what comes before. With that said, the film's intense ambiguity usually veers much more toward intriguing rather than frustrating.
Ultimately, the movie leaves viewers with a series of uncertain conclusions, forcing audiences to decipher their own meaning from the journey. But thankfully, it's a journey always paved in aesthetic complexity and absorbing artistry, slowly guiding those brave enough to embark on a hypnotic excursion into the deepest, darkest, and most wondrous zones of cinema.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Criterion presents Stalker in their standard clear case with spine number 888. The BD-50 Region A disc comes packaged with a pamphlet featuring an essay by critic Mark Le Fanu.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Free from any notable signs of age or damage, this is an impressive image marked by Tarkovsky's hypnotic visual style.
Culled from a new 2K digital restoration of the original 35mm camera negative, the source is in great shape with only some very minor contrast pulsing visible in a few shots. A natural layer of grain is preserved as well, lending the picture a pleasingly filmic appearance. Clarity and depth are very strong, revealing sharp fine textures throughout the runtime, from dirt and grime on characters' faces in close-ups to all of the intricate background details found in the ruins of the Zone. Sequences outside of the Zone are primarily shot in a monochromatic sepia tone, filtering the frame with a high contrast bronze hue. Meanwhile, scenes in the Zone transition to full color with a predominantly cool palette that emphasizes greens, grays, and blues. Black levels are solid with good shadow delineation but do appear a tad elevated in darker scenes.
Filled with striking images, Stalker arrives on Blu-ray with a very strong transfer, allowing the director's delicately absorbing aesthetic to come through unhindered.
The audio is presented in a Russian LPCM mono track with optional English subtitles. Though inherently limited, the film is fueled by some unique sound design choices, adding an extra layer of mood to the experience.
Dialogue is mostly full and well-prioritized, but speech can strain slightly in the high frequencies in a few instances. And while age related issues are predominantly absent, I did detect some minor pops. Thankfully, the sound design itself is actually quite effective, using the modest one channel of audio well. Subtle atmospherics like wind and running water add character to the isolation of the Zone, and more aggressive sounds like passing trains come through with solid presence. Eerie electronic effects are also employed in specific instances, enhancing the otherworldly tone. Likewise, the film's moody ambient score and classical pieces feature decent range when present.
There are some minor signs of age, but the mix holds up quite nicely with a delicate but nuanced mono soundscape.
Criterion has put together a decent collection of supplements, including a few archive interviews with crew members and a new analytical piece. All of the special features are presented in 1080p (though some are clearly upscaled) along with English subtitles for the foreign language portions.
Geoff Dyer (HD, 29 min) – This is an informative 2017 interview with the author of "Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room." Dyer discusses his evolving feelings on the movie (he was initially lukewarm but loves it now), while also analyzing certain shots and revealing some of the challenges faced during the shoot.
Eduard Artemyev (HD, 21 min) – Here we get an interview with the film's composer originally recorded in 2000. Artemyev elaborates on his working relationship with the director and details Tarkovsky's unique approach to using music and sound in his films.
Rashit Safiullin (HD, 14 min) – This is an interview with the film's set designer conducted back in 2000. Safiullin details challenges during the production, including his thoughts on the film's infamous lost year of footage. In addition, we get some info on storyboards and how sets were constructed with limited means.
Alexander Knyazhinsky (HD, 6 min) – This is an interview with the movie's second cinematographer conducted in 1996. We get a few more thoughts on what it was like working with the director, along with a few anecdotes from the set.
Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker leads viewers down a cinematically complex journey into hypnotic rhythm and intriguing ambiguity. Some of its meaning might remain elusive, but the film's narrative and aesthetic depth offer the potential for multiple interpretations. The video transfer is exceptional with sharp detail, and though somewhat limited, the audio track is artistically potent. Supplements are a little on the slim side, but the included interviews are well worth a look. While the film's intentionally measured runtime won't be for everyone, viewers who enjoy deliberately paced science fiction with moody images and heady themes should find a lot to admire here. Recommended.