Sunday Sesh: The Enduring Legacy of Stalker
In 1979, seven years before the Chernobyl Disaster created a real life zone of alienation, Russian director Andrei Tarkovksy released the surprisingly prescient, psychological sci-film Сталкер to critical derision and moviegoer disinterest. The film was tedious, dialogue heavy, and long. It was critically panned and set to slip into cinematic obscurity, but in subsequent decades, especially in light of Chernobyl and the mounting tension of atomic annihilation lurking in the fabric of everyday life in the 80s, film auteurs recognized the artistry beneath the rough surface. Since then, the film has gained more than even a cult status, recognized by the British Film Institute and college deadbeats alike as a true classic for its surreal, open-ended look into what existence means. Now, almost 40 years on, it’s easy to look at Stalker and see its lasting influence on films, video games, and even our medium of choice, heavy metal.
For all its psychological depth, the plot of Stalker is surprisingly simple. In some indefinite timeline in Russia, a group of specially trained guides, called Stalkers, lead wealthy patrons into a heavily guarded, inhospitable region called the Zone. The normal laws of physics do not apply to the Zone, nor do human claims of land ownership or power. The Zone is an entity unto itself, and nestled deep within its heart is a sentient locus, the Room. There, your deepest desires may be granted, or so the story goes. Stalker follows the journey of one of its titular guides into the Zone (and the nature of humanity); the Stalker is joined in this journey by a Writer and a Professor. These characters are never named beyond their profession, allowing viewers to project themselves onto the travelers as they debate the goodness inherent in one’s deepest desires and the greed that threatens to consume it.
Critics may attribute Stalker‘s cult status to the heartfelt writing and imploring nature of its story (a screenplay inspired by a 1971 novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic), but the cinematography itself leaves an impression. When outside the Zone, the Stalker’s world is drab and dreary, soaked in a rusty sepia filter and muddled sound design. His world, and that of the Writer and the Professor, is one of decay and ruin, characterized by crumbling Soviet structures under an anvil sky. However, as soon as the characters cross the border into the Zone, Tarkovsky colors their world with lush greens and stirring purples, its natural tones accented by vibrant field recordings. The Zone asks us, the viewers, if reality is really out there in the natural world, and if our misaligned desires are really the root of our modern malaise.
Although Stalker directly influenced films like The Chernobyl Diaries and shows like Westworld, its influence is far more evident in the kaleidoscopic visuals of recent hits like Annihilation. Like Stalker, Annihilation features an alien zone forbidden to humans (and free of their corruption), one that warps reality and (and the medium of the film itself) around it. The blueprint for Annihilation‘s thoughtful pace and intentional obtuseness was drawn up by Tarkovsky in his earlier film, although Tarkovsky is even less willing to hold viewers’ hands than Alex Garland.
Stalker‘s Conrad-esque tentacles have also rooted themselves in the world of video games. Most obvious is the 2007 game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: SHADOW OF CHERNOBYL, a survival first-person shooter that places you in the neurotic skin of one of Tarkovsky’s stalkers and tasks you with exploring the Zone and using your latent abilities in a direct nod to one of one of the more inscrutable scenes in the film. Aside from S.T.A.L.K.E.R., however, Stalker‘s lifeblood and philosophy can be found in a variety of the more paranoia-inducing, technophobic first-person shooters out there, including the Randian nightmare of the Bioshock series (evident in the questions of alternate realities) and the humanistic failure of the Deus Ex series. The central question of Stalker is one of identity, so perhaps my favorite take on the theme is the cult classic Second Sight, a thrilling exploration of a psychic soldier named John Vattic and his quest to unravel where his own reality jarred loose; that its plot takes Vattic to Russia is unsurprising. If a video game delves into themes of reality, psychic powers, and unrestrained technological progress, it’s almost a given that it was influenced, explicitly or otherwise, by Stalker.
Extreme music also owes much to the thematic weight of Stalker, although given the genre’s proclivity for fetishizing mental illness and its obsession with self-determination, direct links are a bit harder to parse out. Most obvious is The Ocean‘s landmark 2013 record Pelagial. The German post-metal band thematically structured the record around a psychological journey that takes cues from Stalker, but the influence is even more overt. Some tracks directly lift lyrics from the film’s dialogue. The track “Demersal: Cognitive Dissonance” directly quotes the film (which, in a surprising twist, directly quotes the Book of Revelations, perhaps in a sly humanistic commentary on the dangers of wish fulfillment).
And there was a great earthquake
And the sun turned black as sackcloth made of hair
And the moon became like blood
And the stars of the sky fell to the earth
As a fig tree casts its unripe figs
When shaken by a mighty wind
And the sky was split apart
Like a scroll when it is rolled up
My favorite musical take on Stalker, however, is B. Lustmord‘s atmospheric soundscape of the same name. In a direct take on the film’s preoccupation with the interior workings of one’s own mind, Lustmord’s 1995 collaboration with Robert Rich is an entirely instrumental work of dark ambiance. The somber, almost claustrophobic tracks far more accurately capture the spirit of Stalker than the airy post-metal chords of Pelagial. In its open spaces of chirping field sounds and slowly thrumming machinery, Lustmord’s Stalker invites us into a state of quiet contemplation and self-reflection; it’s loaded with the kind of elusive darkness that makes the Zone itself feel so dangerous, and in its ponderous pace listeners are apt to wonder if their deepest desires should really be indulged.
Thankfully, Stalker‘s legacy seems more apparent in 2018 than ever. Hopefully the critical acclaim and word of mouth backing Annihilation and The Ocean will only encourage more people to look back on Tarkovsky’s opus. It would be especially apt given the way old Cold War anxieties have resurfaced in our modern political climate.
If you have a Kanopy account, you should be able to stream Stalker right now.