Stalker (Сталкер) is a science fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, and loosely based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. It depicts the journey of three men as they travel through a post-apocalyptic wilderness called The Zone to find a room that has the potential to fulfil a person's innermost desires. The film stars Alexander Kaidanovsky in the title role of the 'Stalker', who guides the other two men: the Writer, played by Anatoli Solonitsyn, and the Professor, played by Nikolai Grinko. Alisa Freindlich plays the Stalker's wife.
The film uses the English word "stalker" as its title, which it borrows from the original novel. However, it refers not to the contemporary sense of stalking other people, but rather to the older sense of tracking game.
The setting of the film is a tiny town on the outskirts of "The Zone", a wilderness area which has been cordoned off by the government. The film suggests that the Zone was the site of a meteor strike, or perhaps of an alien spaceship landing. The film's main character, the Stalker, works as a guide to bring people in and out of the Zone, specifically to a room which is said to grant wishes.
The film begins with the Stalker in his home with his wife and daughter. His wife emotionally urges him not to leave her again to go into the zone due to the legal consequences, but he ignores her pleas. The Stalker goes to a bar, where he meets the Writer and the Professor, who will be his clients on his next trip into the Zone. Writer and Professor are not identified by name–the Stalker prefers to refer to them in this way. The three of them evade the military blockade that guards the Zone using a jeep — attracting gunfire from the guards as they go — and then ride into the heart of the Zone on a small trolley car.
Once in the Zone, the Stalker tells the others that they must do exactly as he says to survive the dangers that are all around them. The Stalker tests various routes by throwing metal nuts tied with strips of cloth ahead of him before walking into a new area. The Zone usually appears peaceful and harmless, with no visible dangers anywhere–Writer is skeptical that there is any real danger, while Professor generally follows the Stalker's advice.
Much of the film focuses on the trip through the dangerous Zone, and the philosophical discussions which the characters share about their reasons for wanting to visit the room. Writer appears concerned that he is losing his inspiration, Professor apparently hopes to win a Nobel prize, the Stalker — who explains that he never visits the room himself — quotes from the New Testament and bemoans the loss of faith in society. They first walk through meadows, and then into a tunnel which the Stalker calls "the meat grinder". Although the Stalker describes extreme danger at all times, no harm comes to any of the three men. Their journey ends when they arrive at the entrance of the room. Throughout the film, the Stalker refers to a previous Stalker, named "Porcupine," who led his poet brother to death in the Zone, won the lottery, and then hanged himself. When the Writer confronts the Stalker about his knowledge of the Zone and the Room, he says that it all comes from Porcupine.
At this point the Professor reveals, partly in a phone call to one of his colleagues, some of his true motives for having come to the room. He has brought a bomb with him, and intends to destroy the room out of fear that it could be used for personal gain by evil men. The three men fight verbally and physically, and eventually the Professor decides not to use his bomb. A classic Tarkovskian long take, with the camera in the room, leaves the men sitting outside the room, and does not clarify whether they ever enter. The take is long enough to show a rainstorm that spontaneously occurs, from beginning to end.
The next scene shows the Stalker, Writer, and Professor back in the bar. Stalker's wife and child arrive. A mysterious black dog that followed the three men through the Zone is now in the bar with them. It follows Stalker, and his wife protests against - but Stalker says that it followed them around and that he's got attached to it. As the Stalker leaves the bar with his family and the dog, we see that his child, nick-named "Monkey" (who earlier dialogue has suggested is affected by some form of genetic mutation as a "child of the zone") is crippled, and cannot walk unaided. The film ends with a long shot of Monkey alone in the kitchen. She recites a poem, and then lays her head on the table and appears to telekinetically push three drinking glasses across the table, with one falling to the floor. As the third glass begins to move, a train passes by (as in the beginning of the film), causing the entire apartment to shake, leaving the audience to wonder whether it was Monkey or the vibrations from the train that moved the glasses.
As he did with Solaris, Tarkovsky took great liberties in adapting the screenplay to emphasize the philosophical and metaphysical angles that concerned him the most. While the film retains some of the science fiction trappings of the novel, it is most concerned with themes of personal faith that are important to Tarkovsky; there are many themes that allude to existentialism particularly Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky who was referred to in the earlier film Solaris.
In an interview on the MK2 DVD, production designer Rashit Safiullin, describes the Zone as a space in which humans can live without the trappings of society, and can speak about the most important things freely.
It has been pointed out by many film experts and psychologists (such as Slavoj Zizek) that the Zone is not solely within the room, and that although many of the characters see dreams fulfilled in the Zone such as the Professor's belittling of a colleague, they still display dissatisfaction. The Zone cannot fulfil them or their desires, perhaps because the characters are too bound by their own structures and patterns of behaviour making the Zone only able to fulfil baser needs.
Some elements of the original novel remain. In Roadside Picnic, the Zone is full of strange artefacts and phenomena that defy known science. A vestige of this idea carries over to the film, in the form of Stalker's habit of throwing metal nuts down a path before walking along it; the characters in Roadside Picnic do something similar when they suspect they are near gravitational anomalies that could crush them.
In an interview on the MK2 DVD, the production designer, Rashit Safiullin, recalls that Tarkovsky spent a year shooting a version of the outdoor scenes of Stalker. However, when the crew got back to Moscow, they found that all of the film had been improperly developed and their footage was unusable. The film had been shot on experimental Kodak stock with which Soviet laboratories were unfamiliar. There is also speculation that the Soviet authorities deliberately mishandled the development; Tarkovsky's films were relatively popular in the USSR and he was allowed to continue making them, but he was officially frowned upon by the Soviet authorities, not because of his political stances (he rarely talked about politics), but because his films dealt with issues of spirituality and the quest for God.
Even before the film stock problem was discovered, relations between Tarkovsky and the first cinematographer, Georgy Rerberg, had been in serious deterioration. After seeing the poorly-developed material, Rerberg left the first screening session and never came back. By the time the film stock defect was found out, Tarkovsky had shot all the outdoor scenes, and had to burn them. Safiullin contends that Tarkovsky was so despondent that he wanted to abandon further production of the film.
After the loss of the film stock, the Soviet film boards wanted to shut the film down, officially writing it off. But Tarkovsky came up with a solution: he asked to make a two part film, which meant additional deadlines and more funds. Tarkovsky ended up re-shooting almost all of the film with a new cinematographer, Aleksandr Knyazhinsky. He was constantly rewriting the script during the actual shooting and during the dubbing and editing (the film was post-dubbed, as many Soviet films were). According to Safiullin, the finished version of Stalker is completely different to the one Tarkovsky originally shot.
The central part of the film, in which the characters move around the Zone, was shot in a few days at a deserted hydro power plant on the Jägala river near Tallinn, Estonia. The shot before they enter the Zone is an old Flora chemical factory in the center of Tallinn, next to the old Rotermann salt store and the electric plant - now a culture factory where a memorial plate of the film has been set up in 2008. Some shots from the Zone were filmed in Maardu, next to the Iru powerplant and the shot with the gates to the Zone was filmed in Lasnamäe, next to Punane Street behind the Idakeskus.
Many people involved in the film production had untimely deaths. Many attribute this to the long and arduous shooting schedule of the film as well as toxins present at the shooting locations. Vladimir Sharun recalls:
We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Pirita with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.
The 2007 PC game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is also loosely based on elements from the movie. Specifically, the background idea and some terminology of the game ("The Zone", "Stalker") are taken from "Roadside Picnic" and Tarkovsky's adaptation.
Robert Rich and Brian Lustmord recorded an album of dark ambient music inspired by the title and the hypnotic minimalism of Tarkovsky's Stalker. It was released in 1995 on Fathom Records. Björk's song "The Dull Flame of Desire" (released on her 2007 album Volta) takes as its lyrics an English translation of the Fyodor Tyutchev poem that appears at end of the movie. In the album booklet she mentions the movie as the source of the poem. Richie Hawtin's DE9 | Transitions DVD includes a short video inspired by, and credited to, this movie. (Also mentioned in this review)