Stalker is a 1979 science fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, with a screenplay written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, loosely based on their novel ‘Roadside Picnic.’ It depicts an expedition led by the Stalker (guide) to bring his two clients to a site known as the Zone, which has the supposed potential to fulfil a person’s innermost desires. The title of the film, which is the same in Russian and English, is derived from the English word to stalk in the long-standing meaning of approaching furtively, much like a hunter.

The sparseness of exposition leads to ambiguity as to the nature of The Zone. Seven years after the making of the film, the Chernobyl accident led to the depopulation of an area rather like that in the film. Some of those employed to take care of the abandoned nuclear power plant refer to themselves as ‘stalkers’ and to the area around the damaged reactor as ‘The Zone.’

The film departs considerably from the novel. ‘In Roadside Picnic’ the site was specifically described as the site of alien visitation; the name of the novel derives from a metaphor proposed by a character who compares the visit to a roadside picnic. After the picnickers depart, nervous animals venture forth from the adjacent forest and discover the picnic garbage: spilled motor oil, faded unknown flowers, a box of matches, a clockwork teddy bear, balloons, candy wrappers. He concludes that the Zone is to humankind as the picnic’s leftovers are to the forest animals; what the aliens carelessly toss aside is beyond our understanding and a source of power and danger.

Some elements of the original novel remain. In Roadside Picnic, the Zone is full of strange artifacts and phenomena that defy known science. A vestige of this idea carries over to the film, in the form of Stalker’s habit of throwing metal nuts down a path before walking along it; the characters in Roadside Picnic do something similar when they suspect they are near gravitational anomalies that could crush them.

In another sharp contrast, the penultimate scene of the movie is a first person monologue by the Stalker’s wife, where she looks directly into the camera and explains, with increasing authority, how she met the Stalker and decided to stick with him. It is the only such scene in the entire 160 minutes of the film; the content though is a kind of answer to what the same woman had said in the opening scene, when she blamed her husband for their miseries. It carries clear allusions to Christ (who also called strangers to ‘follow me’) and as some reviewers pointed out, echoes the style of 19th-century Russian novels with their bold and passionate heroines.


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