Monday, 21 October 2013

Review - Stalker

I don't do enough reviews these days so I've decided to post my thoughts on intriguing things as I find or revisit them. Anything relevant to the blog that seems worth looking at.

Here's a classic to start. Incredibly, John Till at Fate SF just posted his own review of it.

Stalker (1979)

A film adaptation of a Russian SF novel, Roadside Picnic; directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

One man leads two others into a mysterious, militarily quarantined Zone - an overgrown ruined landscape, possibly struck by a meteorite, possibly the site of an extraterrestrial stopover, a form of roadside picnic - hoping to reach a chamber believed to grant wishes.

This is one of the most old school D&D films I've seen, without being related to D&D in any overt way, and it has a rich, dense terrain that might surprise and inspire wargamers too. The central location - the landscape of the Zone - is arguably at the heart of the film.

Average shot length is long and many of the views are conflictingly beautiful; a few are revelatory. One short sequence soon after the arrival in the Zone may even express the essences of novel and film in just a few seconds. It may be a lethal beauty too if the location really did poison crew members. Many images show or suggest the action and interactions of water, and the effects of this in some cases appear almost otherworldly.

Dialogue is light then heavy by turns, and reflects the region and era, in this case the eastern bloc of the 1970s, part of an ongoing debate on life there, and indirectly human nature. I have a lot of time for this in general, but here I'd argue it adds very little, and covers ground covered
better elsewhere, largely distracting from the magic of the site and situation. I'd say the long tracking shot over the water as the group rests says far more than much of the back and forth, or a key monologue, and is almost a film in itself.

Certain decisions, and partly the stylisation, mean that much of the journey seems to me messily loose, lacking in tension; the one detail I thought was outstandingly creepy is more or less ignored by the characters. But taking a long view this detail is also optimistic, and true to the underlying continuities seen in the film. One or two elements, like the tactical nuke, seem out of place, even if the language did later extend to the exclusion zone at Chernobyl, and inspire the PC game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. The overall feel is more that of an experimental play than a feature film, and that may have been deliberate.

If this lack of tension was intended - and I'm not convinced - it would more strongly imply a particular reading, that there is no wish-granting chamber in the sense it's understood by the Writer and Professor. But this reading may be undermined by the final scene, one that's arguably the only element classifying the film as SF, even if the implications of the event shown seem at odds with the sensitivities of the film as a whole. What could any new technology achieve in light of the failings of the existing, presented on screen?

But this scene itself is undermined in the way the fourth wall is broken just before: could the whole film be a projection of a wife's disappointment in a husband, and a mother's hopes for a daughter? Or is the final scene a variant first reading, with the daughter living out a fantasy? What are the trains carrying? Where? What are our screens showing?

In summary, a fine way to spend a couple of hours. The style may grate and the content might be patchy, but the suggestion and the vast space for reflection are the substance.

I'll also offer a few starting points for further exploration of the ideas, aspects or moods: in this case, I'd say look at Roadside Picnic, The Captive Mind by Miłosz, All The Anne Franks, The Wizard of Oz of 1939, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", Matilda, Life After People, Solaris - the novel and the second film adaptation - and Picnic at Hanging Rock.


John Till said...

A wonderful review and a beautiful scene!

Back in the 90s I was on a train ride and happened to meet a doctor who was from Czechoslovakia. We started talking about film, and the movie Stalker came up. I shared with her how much the film had influenced our gaming, and then she shared something incredible. She said that they used to take youth into the wilderness to do reenactments of Stalker. The point was to teach people altruism. I think this point relates to the tactical nuke in one of the final scenes.

Porky said...

Now that's inspirational. It blends physical exploration, roleplay and learning, blurring out the lines again. It suggests the kind of openness and freedom, and maybe collegiality, we connect more with childhood, even the primeval. The film is so simple in its core journey that the idea makes perfect sense.

I think you're right about the altruism and that scene, that it's related to the Stalker's comments on what he can do regardless, to keep hope alive, that he can at least offer a valuable space.

It's partly this that sets me wondering whether the fulfilment rumoured in the world of the film isn't more about positive suggestion and self-fulfilment, the value of delusion and the nature of a herald or saviour.

John Till said...

I noticed three important things on this viewing:
-the wolf/dog as a positive embodiment of nature and the Zone (maybe tied to St. Francis and Brother Wolf?)
-that Professor is a very ambivalent character (gloating about his "triumph" to infuriate the stooge back at the lab, planning to blow up himself along with the rest of the party to "save" the world from the Room's potential misuse, his lack of foresight about any potential mishaps that might occur from detonating a nuke in the Zone)
-it is completely open to interpretation whether anyone entered the Room (although my guess is that one did - Stalker)

Fascinating how every viewing opens up alternative implications.

Porky said...

The mark of something special.

The dog also makes me think of domestication, the taming of something alien. Interestingly, the dark fur means it bridges the colour scenes and the sepia with no real change, a consistent feature. That bridging seems important given the Stalker's feelings for the Zone and the suggestion his wife enter the chamber.

The scene as they leave the bar is interesting too, for the way canine, wife and daughter relate to the Stalker through their presentations in the film - the creature apparently from the Zone, his wife breaking the fourth wall and their daughter showing a novel ability in the final scene. It could be taken as a commentary on the nature of a family unit in general: tamed alien as best friend, stranger having become partner and unknown quantity created in the form of a child, shaped by parental action, and here even carried on the shoulders. A form of symbiogenesis maybe, or a more corporeal version of us all being made of stardust.

The phone ringing is a great moment, not quite dispelling the magic of what may almost be a form of mythic underworld (or world tree?), but changing it, bringing back context, and shining a new light on the environment. It's also filmed well, not least in the way the Professor crosses the threshold, and if I'm remembering rightly, he's also aligned with the skeleton.

garrisonjames said...

I really need to see this movie. I'll try to grab the book once I finish-up re-reading the three books on my desk right now.

Porky said...

That books-on-desk-problem is a problem here too. A good problem to have though.

Re the skeleton, I remember less rightly than I thought - aligned maybe, but not in line of sight, in parallel, and maybe through a rooting in some sense, whether by stalk or hypha or by cable.

Trey said...

Good review.

Jedediah said...

There's a Finnish Stalker roleplaying game, released in 2008. It's based directly on Roadside Picnic/Stalker and it uses a diceless system with roleplaying and player-driven story very much the focus of the game. I haven't played it yet, but I think it can capture the peculiar atmosphere of the book and movie well. The rulebook itself is a great read to begin with.

Porky said...

I read about that at the Roadside Picnic page, but I didn't realise it was translated, or so close at hand. It sounds like a great resource, a good means of immersion in the material, and a useful stage between the novel and the gameplay itself. Having a specific system attached is great, and adapting the material shouldn't be a problem either given the amount of inspiration there is, and the power of it. If you do run it, I'd be interested in knowing how it goes.

On the subject of gaming it, John is working on a series for Fate, starting here.