A film that for all of its underfunded, overblown student-esque aesthetics, rollicks along with a joy of its own.
Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, first published in 1972 is, without question, one of the classics of science fiction and, equally one of the few to explore the idea that any extra-terrestrial visitation would be largely incomprehensible to humanity and we, in turn, would be so primitive to not even feature in the experience of the visitors. From this, Andrei Tarkovsky’s incomparable Stalker adapted the central concerns and focused on the effect of such a visitation on poor, awestruck humanity, resulting in a film that elsewhere in Spectrum Culture is described as his “most opaque creation.” With such a pedigree in place, it’s time to consider Esa Luttinen’s Vyöhyke, Zone (Zone) (2012), a low-budget Finnish feature that manages to both be closer in narrative to the Strugatsky’s original than Tarkovsky and, at the same time, so much further way from book’s concerns, philosophy and atmosphere.
The basic plot takes the seeds of Roadside Picnic and manages to spin a kind of post-apocalyptic heist movie out of it where, in the finest tradition of film school storytelling, a retired stalker, recently released from prison, has to go back into the Zone to pull off one last job. The Zone in question, one of a number scattered across the globe, was the site of an extra-terrestrial visitation and remains under haphazard military quarantine. As with both the novel and Tarkovsky’s film, the Zones are dangerous, infested with objects of unknown function, traps and other anomalies. A thriving industry exists in smuggling alien technology out of the Zone and, for Luttinen’s version, this is further compounded by the presence of an object known as “the key” that can open Gartner’s Pyramid, which, like the room in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, grants wishes. In Vyöhyke the stakes are further raised with the addition of a race against time, a corrupt and sadistic Security Force officer and, as if that wasn’t enough, the stalker is stuck with the son of his dead mentor.
The film is not without its charms and, along with its rough-and-ready style, manages to include a call back to a key scene in Star Wars: A New Hope as well as visually referencing Tarkovsky, all of which is delightful when it happens. Of course, the film creaks under the weight of its aspirations and the addition of all of those genre elements and unnecessary narrative complexities, along with by-the-numbers character types and a thick spooning on of ‘telling and then showing and then explaining with dialogue,’ means that Vyöhyke doesn’t manage to pull a working story from the Strugatsky’s musings, and certainly doesn’t recognise that Tarkovsky’s skill in adapting the novel lies in giving us less detail to work with, leaving greater room for our own interactions, interpretation and anxieties.
All of which means that, despite its best overcomplicated efforts, those moments where the film manages to find a voice that might actually be its own is when it keeps closest to Tarkovsky and therefore closest to the aching heart of the original novel. There are a few moments where, after the low-stakes action has temporarily run its course and the narrative is allowed to breathe a little, the camera pauses and just gently considers the landscape, extreme long shots showing a dawn mist moving slowly and purposefully across thickly wooded hills, the entire scene lit with the soft pinks and peaches of the rising sun. Necessarily, these moments can’t last and before too long FX shots remind us in a very obvious fashion that all is not what it seems and, with a quick unnecessary run across a minefield and more freeware special effects, the clunky narrative is back, however haphazardly, on track and creaking towards its inevitable conclusion.
What Roadside Picnic manages to capture is both the human desire to make meaning of an indifferent universe and the fact that all such meaning made is provisional, fragile and ultimately pointless. Tarkovsky’s genius was to hold those ideas close and detail the continued and agonizing hunt for purpose in a world rendered irrelevant after the appearance of the Zones. What Luttinen seeks to achieve in Vyöhyke is to find adventure in the nihilism and in that he largely fails. But divorce the film from its impeccable (and impossible) antecedents, and what remains is a film that for all of its underfunded, overblown student-esque aesthetics, rollicks along with a joy of its own. And sometimes, that’s just fine.