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It is probably the nature of narrative features to be more complex than deep. Built on constant movement, development and change, a movie is as much distraction as entertainment. Simplicity is rarely valued as much as active excitement. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is nonetheless a good example of how the seemingly simple cannot just include but embody profound expression when pursued imaginatively. Although technically “science” or “speculative” fiction, it largely lacks the genre’s typical technological wizardry. Instead, the almost matter-of-fact situation combines with relentless execution to explore the ineffable. 

The title refers to a “stalker” (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) whose “job” is to guide successful author Pisatel (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and the “Professor” (Nikolay Grinko) through the “Zone,” a previously inhabited area patrolled by armed guards that is now abandoned and illegal to enter. People are willing to risk being shot to penetrate the Zone because it supposedly includes a room which, if reached successfully, will fulfill a seeker’s deepest wish. 

The almost fairytale-like setup, darkened by a dank industrial landscape, foregoes traditional action in favor of pensive self-examination as the characters struggle with their failings and grapple with the question of exactly what they do want. And there is a catch to the Zone’s promise of fulfillment that makes a guide necessary: it is extremely dangerous because its space is constantly, unpredictably remade. As a result, trespassers cannot be sure places they have navigated will be where they think they left them and many earlier aspirants have disappeared without trace. This dangerous disorientation is heightened further by wet, decaying rubble that would be hazardous regardless of the Zone’s polymorphism.

The situation is harrowing because it effectively makes a fundamental of cinematic storytelling, the creation of a reliable narrative space, the subject. The power of the film image derives from the illusion that its actions occur in the “real” world. While most movie characters (and viewers) take that solid presence for granted, Stalker makes space into a roiling, turbulent cauldron that is no more reliable than a mirage. Thus, while the characters’ failings and questions are given plenty of expression, their turmoil is moving because it is doubled by a physical world as confused as their emotions.

Filmmakers always “cheat” their spaces, perhaps to improve a shot, or to make things easier for the actors. This “cheating” is usually invisible and allows the story to proceed without calling attention to a film’s often awkward spatial realities. In other words, cheating is done in order not to be noticed and to preserve the illusion of a transparent space. The Zone and Stalker foreground the fact that supposedly fluid cinematic space is constructed. Exposing it as such is not done as a materialist critique, however. Instead, Tarkovsky uses the medium’s potential for dislocation to make us feel the characters’ desperation through the physical unreliability raised by the story. The film’s very murkiness paradoxically produces an emotional clarity that exploits uncertainty in despairing acceptance.