What exactly is the Zone?
The central question that plagues viewers of Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 classic is: what exactly is the Zone? If you believe the director himself, Tarkovsky once claimed that the Zone, a portal into another realm that opened following an asteroid impact, doesn’t symbolize anything. That it’s simply the Zone and within is the Room, a place where visitors realize their deepest wishes. And while Stalker may be Tarkovsky’s most opaque creation, the sheer beauty of the director’s vision is enough to propel the viewer along through its nearly three-hour journey.
In Stalker, three men take a journey together into the Zone. Since it is illegal to enter, they must slip past the military to gain access. Guided by the Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky), a low-level thief whose special knowledge of the Zone allows him to act as a tour guide of sorts, two men known simply as the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) sneak in to learn more about its powers, each armed with their own selfish reasons for taking the risk. The Professor wants to discover something that will put his name in history books while the Writer is yearning to find motivation for his novels. Though he has been to the Zone before, the Stalker seems just as terrified and wide-eyed as the men he’s guiding. However, he is aware of the fickle rules of the Zone, ones that could be deadly if challenged.
More oblique than Tarkovsky’s impenetrable Solaris (1972), Tarkovsky’s other foray into science fiction, Stalker also raises heady questions about the inner lives of men and their secret desires. Both of the men the Stalker brings with him are intellectuals and live in their heads. Their desires are ones of fame and glory. The Zone seems to care more for matters of the heart, but each of the men is so emotionally walled-off that the trip towards the Room is filled with peril as, time and again, the ability to reason supersedes the ability to feel.
Tarkovsky is in no rush, making the surreal trip through the Zone feel as if it’s unfolding in real time. It is a place of lush ruin, one where the forest appears to be reclaiming shells of buildings and automobiles. Somehow, the Stalker knows how to navigate it. Instead of moving in a straight line, he instructs his charges to throw pieces of white cloth, weighted down with a metal washer, and then walk in the direction dictated by the Zone. The idea of what may be a higher being directing their path feels laughable to both the Professor and the Writer, both intellectuals existing in a largely secular society. Both commit mistakes that send the Stalker into paroxysms of panic, making him terrified that the Zone will take their lives for defiance.
Water imagery is very prevalent as the men traverse streams filled with jetsam such as syringes and other objects that feel like artifacts from a lost society. Tarkovsky fills the journey with conversations that range from existential terror to the examination of the hardness that overcomes men as they age. The Stalker claims that the Zone prefers men who are pliable and soft. However, the Writer is a dour, miserable man who cannot find any reason for happiness in his life and the Professor is duplicitous in his reasons for entering the Zone.
While Solaris and Andrei Rublev remain Tarkovsky’s masterpieces, Stalker is perhaps the most chockfull of intellectual yearning. However, for every mystery that may seem solvable, Tarkovsky adds one more that is impossible to figure out. Just why does that dog follow them out of the Zone? Why does the Professor back away from his mission? And exactly what the hell happened in that telekinetic final shot? Like the Zone itself, entering Stalker is a mystery that exists above definition.