Friday, August 9, 2013

Stalker - The 'Keep Out' Signs Are the Key to a Good Nature Hike

This is one of those films I realize I should have seen sooner than this, I will admit to that.  It's generally considered among the higher end of science fiction films, but it took me this long.  This is because prior to this, I'd learned Russian cinema, like Russian literature, is something of an acquired taste.  The stories can be very well done, but also VERY dense at points.  This is especially true for Tarkovsky, who marked my last attempt at Russian cinema (Oh Solaris, I WILL get back to you!)

Anyway, my interest in this got resparked by recommendations to reading the original novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.  Despite my initial reservations from various encounters with Russian literature before, the concept had me intrigued.  So I decided to give it a shot and was surprised to find a recent retranslation of the book actually reads quite well (I'd recommend giving it a read if you get the chance, but that's only tangentially related to the film.) After being impressed with the story, I decided it was finally time to make another bid at trying to tackle Russian film.  Luckily, this film made for a VERY appropriate pick to get back into them.  It's definitely still a bit daunting  and not one I'd recommend for a casual watch, but it is also a very enthralling movie that can suck you in quite easily without having you realize it.

"You know what's funny?  Of all the things that have happened since we got here, this is probably the sanest so far."

The film's premise is roughly the same as the novel - some years ago, mankind had its first encounter with an alien presence.  No actual contact was made, but the area the aliens arrived in, codenamed "The Zone" was forever changed by their visit.  Like the original story, we never actually see any aliens within this film.  In a way, it's somewhat akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey - the aliens have a major effect on the plot, but are never actually seen.  Rather, we explore their effects on humans by other means.  In this case, the Zone, given its unknown and dangerous properties, has been roped off, and entrance is strictly prohibited.  Despite this, the appeal of the Zone's mysteries has lead to a rise in people known as 'Stalkers' (hence the film's title.)  Stalkers have made a business of being able to infiltrate and navigate the Zone, either sneaking people in or things out for a cost.  The big difference between the two stories, and one of the things that really surprised me in thinking about on this film - was in the matter of the focus.  In the Strugatskys' original novel, the work is more of a macrocosm - the story takes place over a period of years, where we see the effects of the technology (which the novel speculates may itself be little more than junk, albeit junk that would still be INCREDIBLY advanced for us) and how mankind has benefited from it, as well as how continual visits to the Zone shape the life of the protagonist, Red.  By comparison, Tarkovsky's version is more of a microcosm and somewhat insular in design.  The narrative loosely bases itself on the final arc of the novel - the protagonist, in this version simply credited as Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) has taken up a job to go into the Zone with two other men: a cynical writier (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a professor (Nikolai Grinko.)  Their destination therein is an area simply known as "The Room," a section of the Zone rumored to grant any person their deepest desire.

With a prize like this awaiting, it becomes very clear that this movie is taking a much more introspective approach to the ideas of the Zone.  In many ways, this is the film's strongest feature - taking a simple, but intriguing premise and using it as the basis for some very well thought out character study of the three protagonists.  It's particularly interesting that, despite never learning their actual names, only their job titles, the trip winds up revealing a great deal about all three of them.  This is particularly helped along by the performances of the three leads.  While the screenplay (also written by the Strugatskys) certainly does much for their characterization, it's the acting that really sells it.  In particular, Kaidanovsky and Solonitsyn play off of each other well in many scenes, the former a seasoned veteran of the Zone while the latter remains cynical and constantly challenging just how much the Stalker truly knows.  The conflict that emerges from these two as the film goes on becomes particularly pronounced at the climax, where the very different views the two have come to a head.  Likewise, as the film plays out, Grinko comes into his own as the Professor when his own intentions are made clear.  Over time, the mysterious territory of the Zone becomes less of an exploration to us than the people who dare to venture into it do.

OK, so they're not as slapstick as their American counterparts, I STILL say there's merit to the Russian Three Stooges.

This isn't to say that the Zone itself isn't worth the trip.  The cinematography in this film is arguably one of the biggest hooks that can suck you into it.  Cinematographer Aleksander Knyazhinsky does a phenomenal job of creating a stark difference in the two settings - first showing us the normal world our three explorers live in as a harsh, sepia-tinted world, with little that initially appears natural.  This actually also really works out well for the sequences when the three first sneak into the zone - the train station they sneak through to get into the Zone looks particularly unwelcoming, and cast in hard shadows.  When they enter into the Zone, the world is cast in color that, after the 'real world', feels alien in its own right.  Further, Tarkovsky's decision to film the movie at the site of two abandoned hydro power plants helps give the Zone a genuinely eerie feel - a world both abandoned, yet feeling perfectly natural in doing so.  I have to admit, it was the cinematography that became the biggest draw of the film for me on that first watch.  While I will concede the first section of the movie before they entered the Zone felt a bit slow to start, once they were inside, I was hooked.  By the time the first Act ended (the film is divded into two acts), I was surprised to realize the film had already been on for an hour.  That is the kind of draw that the film can have at points.  It's also somewhat unsettling to watch the scenes in the abandoned power plants nowadays and realize that this film actually predated the Chernobyl accident by a good seven years.  Given the legacy that event has instilled, it's hard NOT be reminded of it while watching this (a tie further solidified by the fact people have since made the connection themselves through gaming, and the fact many of the people who worked in the area afterward nicknamed themselves Stalkers.)  Again, not intentional, but the film does gain something of an eerie 'time has really changed how to view this' factor.


Sort of like The Wizard of Oz, if the land of Oz was an unpredictable playground of psychological nightmares where the laws of physics laugh in your face.

As something of a downside to the choice in locations it's somewhat unfortunate to learn that filming in these locations would later prove toxic, taking the lives of several of the people involved, including Tarkovsky himself.

Again, just have to say, it really is impressive to realize they didn't have to do much to some of these sets.  Slightly disturbing, and impressive.

In further adding to the atmosphere of the movie, the score by Eduard Artemyev works on that line where it doesn't particularly overpower the scenes, but blends well into them, giving them an extra touch of flavor.  Most notably with the film's haunting main theme.  It helps set the stage for events to come and is just a well done, eerie piece of music all on its own.

Like I said above, I'll warn that this film can be daunting at points.  It's very well done, but it's also very internalized, and as such, it doesn't lend itself well to a quick watch.  If you're looking for something that you can really get into, however, this could be worth taking the time for.  It's a bit of a strange ride, but worth taking if you're up for it.

Well, that made for a bit of an odd choice to end the week with.  For what it's worth, next week's film stands to be something a bit lighter.  In the meantime, will have another new release review lined up soon.

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