These days, it would be almost unheard of to see a science fiction movie with no “special effects.” Especially with the advance of digital technology, it is a given that major science fiction movies will be “dazzling” spectacles of the latest technical wizardry. Movies with few or low-cost effects are judged accordingly, and often don’t do well at the box office. Speaking as a die-hard science fiction fan, I love my special effects...when I want to be entertained. But movies have not always been for mere entertainment. It’s almost hard to imagine (given the pervasiveness of the Hollywood model), but there have been times and places in the world where movies were high art. Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky was a filmmaker of this sort. This month, for the Hibbleton Gallery film series, we’ve been screening the entire filmography of Tarkovsky. I’ve written posts on his films Andrei Rublev and The Mirror. Last night, we watched “Stalker,” one of the most unique science fiction films ever made.
The film is based on the short novel Roadside Picnic by Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which posits a strange twist on the “alien invasion” story. Instead of a full-scale conquest (like Independence Day or Ender’s Game), the aliens have visited an area and left odd (and mostly invisible) traces of their presence—small pockets where the laws of physics don’t apply, a room that grants your innermost desire, and “messages” that are only perceived by the soul. The film follows a “Stalker” (or, guide) who leads a writer and a physicist into “The Zone” where the aliens came (and left). The Zone has been surrounded by military and police, and is totally off limits to curious civilians. To visit The Zone, one needs a trained Stalker who can help you sneak in and navigate the strange (and dangerous) world of The Zone.
Contrary to expectations, The Zone is not some utopian or even other-worldly-looking place. Tarkovsky filmed it in Estonia, in and around a ruined chemical plant that was still leaking poisons into a nearby river. The film feels post-apocalyptic, as the three main characters navigate fetid pools of discolored water, trash, and the discarded junk of industry and war. One of the most poignant images of the film is a field where there are rusting/decaying World War II era Soviet tanks, overgrown with plants and moss. The Zone is a ruined, traumatized landscape, but one gets the impression that this ruin was made by man, not aliens.
What the aliens offer, through the guidance of the Stalker, is a slow process of inner meditation and exploration. Instead of facing external obstacles, the characters’ journey is mostly inward, as they must address deep metaphysical questions about life, meaning, spirituality, creativity, etc. The most significant journeys, Tarkovsky is suggesting, have to do with the intersection of one’s own soul and the world. The Stalker, who is a Christ-like spiritual guide, says at one point:
“Let everything that's been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it's tender and pliant. But when it's dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death's companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.”
Living under an oppressive Soviet regime that censored a lot of its country’s art, Tarkovsky had to learn how to talk about things that mattered to him not directly, but poetically. In this way, he was like Iranian filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Moshen Makhmalbaf, or Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski, who actually learned to become better filmmakers precisely because of the limitations they were working under.
Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, “Stalker” is about a multiplicity of things. It is a spiritual/scientific/artistic quest, a journey toward enlightenment and mystery, a subtle commentary on oppression and art, and a meditation on the potential in mankind to either ruin or save the world. The visuals of the ruined factory and its surrounding landscape are hauntingly beautiful. A while back, I curated an art exhibit on postindustrial photography called “Charming Decay.” It featured ruined and abandoned factories, rusting machines, and other products of abandoned industry. To me, there is something both tragic and beautiful in an abandoned factory, overgrown with plants—suggesting that even the harsh, oppressive, and even poisonous creations of humans are not what ultimately “win.” What wins, ultimately, are the soft things, the things we think of as “weak”—things like plants and small creatures, and things like poetry and art and real human love.
With (almost) no special effects, “Stalker’ is that rare gem of a science fiction film that succeeds entirely on its own unique terms. The only real special effect occurs in the closing scene of the film, when a little girl, the “mutant’ offspring of the Stalker, works a tiny miracle that is, precisely because of its seeming smallness, more epic and transcendent than any digital wizardry.