Thursday 30 May 2013

Stalker (1979)

Outside the Zone, everything is sepia and slow
I'm afraid I'm inevitably going to spoil the end of 'Stalker', not that it ends with a twist.  No, it's just that the things I expected all the way through, which I rather looked forward to, never came to pass.

This is a Russian SF movie, a horror, perhaps, though nothing especially horrific occurs, set in a mysterious Zone, which few dare visit.  The Zone, we hear, must be respected.  Those who disrespect this grassy locale will find themselves caught in horrific and unpredictable traps, twisted, killed, destroyed.  At the heart of The Zone is a room where your heart's desire will be granted, but the less direct route is always safer.  So, after a (deliberately boring) first half hour ending with a journey into The Zone (on a wonderful little railway cart), our three protagonists, The Writer, the Professor and the Stalker take the most rambling and indirect path possible, rather than just walking in a straight line for about a hundred yards and either dying horrifically or ending the film early.

Inside the Zone, everything is ostensibly deadly
This circuitous route through a capricious realm of sudden death makes for an extremely tense film.  It's drawn out even longer by lengthy pauses to rest, close eyes, to think, and talk philosophy.  In general this heightens the tension, and the great length of each camera-shot leaves open the constant and growing suggestion that any moment now the Zone will do its thing, and one of the travellers will be punished with death.  It's really extremely fraught.  Until, that is, the viewer realises that the horrible deaths are never going to come.  In the original novel, 'Roadside Picnic', characters perish in the meat-grinder and in many other grizzly ways.  Not so in the movie; they speak of the murderous traps, and the chance of our characters dying very suddenly and in ways that kinda serve them right always seems terrifyingly imminent, but it just doesn't happen.  The anticipation of blood and mysterious violence makes its non-appearance tremendously disappointing.

Now, there's an exciting film that could have been made here, though a rather shallower one.  Pump up the cast of characters with some trap-fodder, cut the rambling, improvised-sounding philosophy, and have the most folly-filled adventurers explode in showers of blood once in a while and you have a crowd-pleasing thriller - a charmless work, but such films do well enough at the box-office.  Perhaps I was raised in a more bloodthirsty generation?

The Stalker's daughter regards beverage conveyances.
Stalker, here, doesn't mean seedy deviant, but hunter.
After the difficult opening half-hour, I found most of the film quite satisfying, if low on incident.  I reassured myself that it was far better that 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (1977).  Both are two-and-a-half-hour ventures into the gritty and Wintery SF of the Eastern Bloc, and both films ran into political trouble for their miserable vision of the life as grey, dirty, bleak and awful.  In this, though, I knew who all the characters were, where they were going and what might happen to them.  Had the ending not undermined all that went before, or had the body of the film have been less gruelling, I might have come out of it all more positively.  For the last half-hour I waited for the film to end, and reflected on how this Penciltonian project prompts me to watch films I wouldn't otherwise have watched, and finish them so that you, dear viewer, need not.

Opai suggests that I've failed to see the film's merits, or have written it off unduly.  Perhaps I'll revisit it some day to see what more I can find in it, but it won't be soon.

I realised after I watched it that it's a film by Andrei Tarkovsky.  He's meant to be rather good, you know.  He did 'Solaris' (1972), didn't he?

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