How come nobody told me this was a horror film? Well, maybe it’s my fault, since I tried to avoid spoilers for a movie I suspected would be a unique experience. I wasn’t wrong. The movie is poetic in the way that people get upset at, slow and full of impenetrable visuals married with philosophical ramblings. But it’s also poetic in the sense that it is like poetry, built on images and details and not really a story as much as a flow of feelings and a sense of place. This is the stuff that makes it a horror film, the way that the Zone (which mysteriously appeared one day and caused its inhabitants to disappear and is now a trap-filled ruin that has nature mostly taking over human constructions) feels like the fourth character, and it’s not a benign one. Though nothing really happens, it feels like something might at any moment. The characters walk in straight lines, wary that their footsteps might doom them to an incomprehensible death. The camera follows behind, one of my favorite kinds of shots, and the characters often turn to look back at the camera/the others. It’s paranoia 101, and it’s so interesting here juxtaposed against the sheer beauty and ruin that the Zone represents.
The three characters are a Writer looking for inspiration, a Scientist looking for truth, and a Stalker, looking to get them where they’re going. Tarkovsky, of course, doesn’t let it lie at that, and the paranoia builds as they start to reveal their deeper selves. This is all fine and dandy, story-wise, but it isn’t really a story movie. It’s a Zone movie. The camera seems to take up the point of view of the Zone. It’s a point of view that rarely blinks as many of the shots are long and often contain several recompositions (a wide shot turns into a close up as a character enters the frame from below, for example). So you get absorbed into the world of the film, you succumb to its slow flow of time and space. You see the way the world works and recognize that it isn’t at all like our world. And it’s a little terrifying and a little exciting but mostly you’re just waiting to see if you can get out of this camera setup all the while knowing that the next one will be just a little bit more twisted as the characters and you delve deeper and deeper into the Zone. Once Stalker has its grip on you (and for me that happened with the shot of the family at the beginning in the bed), it doesn’t let you get away easily.
I’ve said several times that this isn’t a story movie, but there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so to speak. Somewhere in the Zone is a room that will give you your deepest desire once you enter it. Seems like a good deal, except maybe it isn’t. The final half an hour or so becomes less about the Zone and more about the nature of humanity, desire, happiness, faith, and, most interestingly for me, cynicism. That this movie which spends so much time on what seems like an absurd quest to an impossible destination ends up as (so far as I can tell) an argument for the power of belief (and cinema to create that belief, because what have I been talking about except the very pinnacle of believing in an unprovable thing) is what moves this from a high spot on my next top 100 to a likely top 10 spot. It is like that other movie you’re probably all tired of hearing me talk about, Fanny and Alexander, in that its own technical prowess is not only a tool for the story being told but also the essence of the story itself. Stalker is a truly amazing film experience that demonstrates exactly why movies are magic.