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by MP Bartley

"Tarkovsky gets into the Zone."
4 stars

In deepest Russia, there exists something known only as the Zone. Cordoned off and surrounded by military patrols, no-one is exactly sure how it arrived there or what it is - perhaps a meteorite crashed there, or an alien influence. But inside the Zone the normal laws of physics don't apply and it's rumoured to be the site of a great source of power. Three men are traversing through it and all have different reasons for their journey.

That precis could fool you into thinking that Stalker is a tense, exciting sci-fi thriller full of danger, spills and action. But that would be to imagine Stalker as directed by anyone other than Andrei Tarkovsky. Director of the original version of Solaris, Tarkovsky has a style that takes no prisoners. The "action" - for want of a better word - moves at a glacial pace that makes Terence Malick films look veritably Michael Bay-esque, the camera often crawls towards the characters at a speed that suggests it's attached to the back of a snail and the three main characters mumble their way through discussions on life, philosophy and fate that only occasionally has something to do with what's happening on screen. The fact that the first hour of the film does actually contain a car chase and a burst of machine gun fire is pretty much a perverse joke by Tarkovsky.

This isn't a criticism as such, but more a warning. If you're sleepy, easily distracted or just want something that doesn't demand your total attention then Stalker is not the film for you. Go watch Aliens instead. But if you're prepared to meet the challenges that Tarkovsky throws your way, then the rewards are great indeed and worth every minute of the two-and-a-half-hour running time.

What Tarkovsky's ultra slowburning approach does is create an evocative world quite unlike any other. The only film that comes to mind that did such a good job of world building is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner - and Stalker most certainly does not have murderous androids running about the place. What it does have is the feel of a world coming to a slow and miserable end. The very film itself looks infected with rust and falling apart, while the Zone itself catches you off guard with its desolate beauty and remnants of a past civilisation. It's a deceivingly quiet place, seemingly at odds with the crumbling industrial world around it, but there's something completely unnerving and disturbing about it. Nothing should be this quiet, seemingly devoid of life and whoever did the location scouting on this film deserves an award all of their very own. What we see here truly seems like a forgotten part of the world, a part of the world where the normal rules of life just don't apply anymore.

It's no wonder the increasing silence and emptiness of the Zone gets to the three travellers. The leader of the group and the Stalker of the title (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) has the ability to lead others through the group and thus takes Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Scientist (Nicolai Grinko) on their journey. Writer is wry and cynical about the Zone while Scientist is open-minded about what they might find within it and how it will impact up on them as human beings. Lofty ideals from both of them, but both are prey to the flaws of humanity and as the dangerous aspects of the Zone impinge upon their these flaws open into open conflict - but conflict as Tarkovsky sees it. Sure, there's physical grapples and potentially life-ending situations that the three men find themselves in, but the real power of the Zone lies in its ability to strip away what the men think they know of life of nature and force them to reevaluate their beliefs and ideologies. It is this type of approach that will test all but the hardiest of viewers and you suspect that this was Tarkovsky's point all along. The sheer exhaustion and mumbling fugue that the actors collapse into by the end might well mirror your own state of mind by the end.

It's also an approach that makes the use of a star rating system more or less useless. There are parts of Stalker that are simply baffling and severely endurance testing - yet there are moments of visual brilliance throughout. I think a four star rating is the fairest, yet even know, weeks after seeing it, images and moments from it are still creeping back into my memory. Perhaps after another viewing I'll rate it higher than I do, but I think the simplest thing to do about Stalker is to urge you, dear reader, to watch it, absorb it and make your own mind up about it because there's simply little else like it.

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originally posted: 07/09/11 22:24:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/15/15 stanley welles hauntingly beautiful and brilliant 5 stars
6/21/09 Brad G. Haunting, achingly beautiful, bits of it still creep back into my head. 4 stars
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  DVD: 07-Nov-2006



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