It’s not often that lovers of ‘serious’ art films and fans of sci-fi movies look forward to the same thing. But it happens. Very very rarely. And it happened last Friday, when the Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovky’s 1979 Russian film Stalker was re-released in a digitally restored version, from 2K scans of the original negative. But what’s got the cinephiles even more excited is that this will soon be available in Blu-Ray as part of the Criterion Collection. And this time, the buzz is totally justified.
For one, it’s brought back into focus two brothers who when alive were, and for many, continue to be, synonymous with Russian science fiction. The film is loosely based on a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (or simply the Strugatsy Brothers), Roadside Picnic.
If you were looking for a great Soviet-era sci-fi classic to put on your to-read list, this would be it (assuming Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is already on that list).
Aliens, presumably from a highly technologically advanced civilisation, have visited Earth at different locations in an event now known as the Visitation. And each of the places they’ve visited – known as Visitation Zones, each a few kilometres in area – are exhibiting strange, mysterious phenomena where even the laws of physics as we know them seem to break down. And strewn around these Zones are strange objects and artefacts with inexplicable and sometimes dangerous properties.
No one has any idea when and how the aliens came, why they came and why they left leaving behind these strange objects. It’s alien garbage, theorises a scientist, left behind without a second thought by someone just making a brief stopover. Like how people drive off the road and stop for a roadside picnic and once rested, carry on, leaving behind garbage like apple cores, cans, bottles, papers, etc., that ends up confusing the insects in that small area and to whom these objects looks strange and inexplicable.
Given how these Zones and the alien objects contained within them can be dangerous, they’ve been sealed off and are off-limits. But that doesn’t stop a thriving black market dealing in smuggled alien artefacts from developing. This is where the ‘Stalkers’ come in. People who go into the Zone, avoiding the patrols and all the dangers that the Zone poses, to smuggle out the alien objects. From scientists and collectors to people with questionable motives, everyone has their reason to get their hand on these artefacts.
Roadside Picnic tells the story of one such Stalker, Redrick ‘Red’ Shuhart who’s the best at his job. The film is about his adventures, misadventures, triumphs and travails as he grapples with being a Stalker while balancing it with his responsibilities as a friend, a husband, a father and most importantly, a human being — especially when on his last incursion into the Zone in search of a sphere that is supposed to grant all wishes made to it.
After reading Roadside Picnic, Tarkovsky recommended it to his friend, the fellow filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov, who was initially interested but then abandoned the project when he was not able to obtain the rights. Meanwhile, Tarvkovsky had begun to become more interested in the project himself and went about adapting it to film by paring away the book to its bare essentials, while expanding on the human concepts explored in the book. The movie would not even name the Stalker and focus solely on one expedition into the Zone, while introducing two customers for the Stalker. The screenplay would be written by the Strugatsky Brothers themselves. And the film itself? Well, Stalker came out just like you’d expect any serious and self-respecting avant-garde art film to be – a sure-fire cure for chronic insomnia.
In Tarkovsky’s own words, “The film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.” And this is what the main action revolves around: In an undetermined time in the future, 20 years after a falling object has decimated a Russian town, the ‘Stalker’ – ignoring the pleas of his wife – agrees to take two people to The Room, a location in the crash site known as the Zone, which is supposed to grant the wishes of anyone who enters it. The two customers are known only as the Writer (a disappointed idealist who has lost his muse) and the Scientist (who has his own ulterior motives).
Avoiding all the traps and dangers, they make it to The Room, which operates on its own laws of reality and whose promise of wish-fulfilment is not as straightforward as these three think it is or want it to be.
Sounds simple enough, but Tarkovsky turns this journey into one of psychological trauma, emotional discovery (and re-discovery) and metaphysics. To each of the protagonists, The Room takes on its own meaning. The film is challenging, but rewarding. Full of quotable quotes for those that seek it and thought-provoking by virtue of being the philosophical fable Tarkovsky wanted it to be, Stalker features some beautifully crafted camera work and a dream-quest-like narrative driven by sculpted dialogue. ‘Haunting’ is the word many have used to described it, but most agree it’s a science fiction masterpiece and a cinematic classic.
Trailer of the newly, digitally restored Stalker:
So treat yourself to Roadside Picnic and Stalker. In any order that you wish; doesn’t matter what you start with, the Tarkovsky masterpiece or the Strugatsky Brothers’ classic. What matters is that both are immensely satisfying in their own way, with each exploring the strengths of the medium that they came out in. I hope you enjoy both.
On that hopeful note, I sign off for this week, and hope you see you back here again on FactorDaily for yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly next Friday as we continue exploring this many-splendoured thing we call science fiction. Live long and prosper!
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