A semi follow up to Martin’s Lem piece (a writer for whom the only affection I have is due to him sharing the first name with my grandfather). I went to the NFT a few weeks ago to see Stalker. OK, Roadside Picnic is not by Lem, but Tarkovsky did try to rectify what he disliked about his own version of Solaris in Stalker. Namely, he didn’t want it it look like science fiction at all. And so he boils the Strugatsky Brothers novel – already quite cerebral – into an elongated philosophical joke about a writer, a scientist and a priest* in a pub. A very elongated joke indeed, albeit one with a terrific psychological punchline. How well do you know what your hearts desire is, really? No, really? Would you trust the fate of the world on it? Cos really, deep down, aren’t you a misanthropic, evil little sonofabitch?

Stalker is in many ways the ultimate anti-sci-fi movie. It has a vaguely science fiction set-up (aliens list, vanish leaving unstable, dangerous “zones” full of alien technology) but is presented in a near luddite way. With the exception of a few scenes near the end there are no special effects, the scenery is bombed out buildings, railways lines and the margins of towns and science is given pretty short shrift. But then via the writer so is creativity. And the Stalkers’ faith in his abilities to traverse this seemingly benevolent but dangerous landscape gives him the arrogance of a believer. Tarkovsky doesn’t like any of his characters and yet feels compelled to chronicle their journey to the end. When they make their final decision we see them restored to their proper state, three blokes in a bar, untouched by any form of progress. It is a joke set-up if it was funny. It is not. It is very Russian.

Despite this there is a lot of suspense in the inexorable crawl towards the goal (the golden ball) in Stalker. Will the three of them make it despite the lack of obvious peril? Well this is the only suspense in the film and unfortunately for me, it had been spoiled by Prof Ian Christie. Christie (an old tutor of mine) had presented the film after a bit of chat about how he presented it twenty five years ago with Tarkovsky present. He then asked how many people in the cinema had not seen it. A fair smattering of hands, including my own, popped up. He said this was great, its nice to see a film with people who do not know what is going to happen. He then showed a slide from the film saying it occurred near the end of the film and those who had seen it would know its significance. Those who did not know the film would also easily be able to work out though that the characters depicted in the slide survive til the end. THUS NEGATING WHAT LITTLE SUSPENSE THE FILM HAD TO OFFER. Cheers Ian.


*The role I see the stalker in as he has complete faith and has given himself over to the Zone.