Stated like this, the plot resembles a mix of a tedious intellectual joke - a writer, a scientist and a stalker walk into a bar - and a ho-hum episode of The Twilight Zone. But narrative is no more important to Tarkovsky as it was to Samuel Beckett. His are characters literally searching for a plot, a meaning, a coherence to a universe where no scheme is readily apparent. Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy plays the 'Stalker', a guide who helps people enter the Zone. He leaves his wife (Alisa Freindlich) and daughter 'Monkey' in their dripping, train rattled bedsit and meets his two clients, a pedantic professor and scientist (Nikolay Grinko) who seems to be out for a stroll, complete with knapsack, thermos and sandwiches, and a cynical disillusioned writer, played by Andrei Rublev actor Anatoli Solonitsyn, who is worried about running out of cigarettes and loses his hat when his latest girlfriend drives off with it on the car roof.
Entering the Zone means crossing a heavily policed border with soldiers authorised to use lethal force and we get a surprising car chase. Once in the Zone the brown sepia monochrome of reality gives way - a nod to The Wizard of Oz, that other investigation into wish fulfilment - to a verdant Kodak colour. The journey is Homeric in the sense that it is full of delays and distractions, rituals, magic and a long stretch of dream-filled sleep - back to the sepia monochrome for this moment, suggesting reality is the dream and the Zone, reality. The travellers discuss their motives, hopes and doubts. The scientist quite rightly fears that if the Room genuinely has the power to fulfil dreams that it will be dangerous as every tyrant and visionary will use it to change humanity catastrophically. The writer on the other hand wonders that achieving some sort of supernaturally induced fame and satisfaction would actually rob him of the whole point of being a writer. The Stalker is the true believer and is determined to make everyone happy, willing to risk a long prison term or even death in the pursuit. His connection to the Zone is primal - he goes off for a moment to lie in the grass, as if mother nature was simply his mother - and he jockeys and tricks the two clients into continuing their journey even after they seem to have lost all hope.
In the space of a relatively short review, it is very difficult even to begin to touch on the brilliance of Tarkovsky's film. For those wanting a more substantial insight, Geoff Dyer's book Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room is both a brilliant introduction to the movie and an adventure in watching and thinking. Stalker is essentially cinematic art at its height. Tarkovsky's floating camera presents a rich and varied visual vocabulary, from scenes of urban waste to Edenic exteriors and magical internal spaces full of dunes of sand. His characters move through a complex sodden landscape, a crumbling fragmentary space made of ordinary materials, but somehow skewed, somehow uncanny. The impressionistic sound design mixes old traditional instruments, snatches of triumphant classical music and electronic distortion and the occasional thundering of a train.
It's never quite clear if what is being heard is actually there or a result of some kind of displacement. Tarkovsky reportedly filmed the entire movie three times after falling out with two of his cinematographers and it is reputed that the film effectively killed him and his wife and several other members of the crew and cast. When the state body responsible for financing the film saw the final cut and complained that audiences would be bored, the director replied he had made the film deliberately boring at the beginning so anyone who had come into the wrong theatre would have time to leave. But those who stay will always have something of the Zone in them from that point on, partly a revelation and partly an infection.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty