Having finally come to love Solaris, I set out to watch other Tarkovsky films. This being one of his other most popular, and also a science fiction tale, it was decreed to be next.
Now, here’s the deal with Tarkovsky: He believed that an essential feature of film as an art form is time, as in, the time it takes you to watch it, and what happens to you—the thoughts and feelings you have—during that time. As such, his films are very long, and very slow, and take a big adjustment out of our current fast-paced, action-every-few-minutes movie expectations. But, if you can make that adjustment, just let yourself go, relax and take it in, his films are photographically gorgeous and incredibly poetic experiences that can be some of the most moving and memorable experiences of your life. This one is very beautiful and will leave you with a great deal to think about.
We open with a slow reveal of a grimy room in sepia photography—even now we can marvel at the richness and texture of the images. After some loooong credits, a quote from a fictitious Nobel Prize winner about The Zone: No one knows whether it was caused by a meteorite or was created by aliens, but it is acknowledged as a miracle. Originally they sent in police to investigate, but they never returned. Since then The Zone has been cordoned off and all access forbidden. It is said that in the room at the center of The Zone one’s innermost wish will come true. This has led to the employ of Stalkers, people who lead others in for money, but never enter the room. By the way, the word "stalker" is meant in its original sense, that is, one who approaches something very carefully and steadily.
So the camera slowly enters a room where a couple is sleeping. We pan at a glacial pace left across the sleeping couple, then slowly back. The man wakes and tries to slip out, but his wife wakes and berates him for leaving again. She says he’s addicted to The Zone, isn’t thinking of her and their daughter—who was born with defects as stalkers’ children often are—and will be sent be sent back to prison. He replies that to him, everywhere is a prison. He leaves, and his wife falls to the floor, writhing in a highly sensual emotional agony.
A couple waits by a nasty shipyard. The man, who we’ll know as the Writer, complains that everything in life is so boring and he has lost his engagement with reality long ago. Again, the photography is gorgeous and impeccably composed: for example, look at the frame below. You have the couple in front of this beautiful jumble of old ships in the distant mist, with a tree dividing the frame toward the left. Much of the movie is just unbelievably gorgeous like this, with shots as composed, rich and textured as paintings. The first part of the movie also lays out this reality as a dank, nasty, polluted nightmare world.
The stalker takes the Writer to meet the Professor, the other guy he’ll be escorting into the Zone today. The Writer, who, it must be said, is a trifle bitter, makes a speech about how a treasured antique in a museum might have been just a slop bowl when it was produced and used, and defrauded “all those conniseurs.” Yep, life is dead to him—and he won’t shut up about it. The Writer is also cut off from life and unable to write. So this happy bunch set off in a jeep to enter the zone and have their wish fulfilled [I want a pony!] and maybe find something to live for again.
They drive through this incredibly evocative deserted industrial city—they obviously have some super-powerful fog machines at their disposal—while the Writer shares his many thoughts on how life totally sucks. I used to think I was bitter. They spot a train being let into the big gate to the zone, and rush their jeep in after it, drawing machine gun fire from the guards. Once inside they are safe—from the guards, at least—because no one would dare venture in.
In the zone, the photography switches to vivid color, although it too is a green wasteland, littered with hulks of abandoned cars, tanks and buildings. It’s kind of amazing the low-burning tension this film is able to create while moving at such a slow pace, something those who found themselves getting into Solaris will be familiar with. This one is, comparatively, a total edge-of-your-seat thriller, however.
As they proceed the Stalker keeps warning them about the various terribe things that can happen to them if they wander off alone or try to hurry—yet nothing ever happens. He says that the place is constantly rearranging itself, and that “no one comes out the same way they came in.” He ties ribbons to steels nuts and throws them ahead in their path, to make sure its safe to go that way. Soon the writer starts to think the Stalker is just full of shit—this is his basic view of humanity anyway—and wants to hurry off on his own. The Stalker becomes quite impassioned about how they must listen to him… apparently the personalities of the people one is traveling with affect one’s visit, the obstacles one faces, and suchlike. They regroup, continue on, and this is the end of part one.
The Writer is getting nastier and nastier, and they’re all starting to hate each other. The Professor has smuggled in instruments to measure the Zone, which the Stalker thinks is just so much silliness. These two do not seem to grasp the mystical nature of the Zone, which the Stalker laments. They lay down to sleep, and the Writer starts up his philosophical musings on how the world is shit and people are rotten, causing the Professor to tell him to shut up and “Keep your complexes to yourself.” The Writer then says he just wants to say one more thing… and starts on another bitter monologue on another topic. Then we have an absolutely gorgeous slow track up a stream, looking at various little objects embedded in the stream, then a slow track back. The whole shot lasts three minutes.
SPOILERS > > >
They continue. At a certain point they have to go through a tunnel, which the Stalker says is very dangerous and refers to as “the meat grinder,” but nothing at all dangerous happens. The Writer was asked to go first, however, a fact that he is very bitter about. The Professor has brought a gun, they now find out, and when a phone suddenly rings, he answers it and indicates that he’s going to cause some trouble when they finally reach the room. The Stalker is all psychologically anguished that people could be so nasty, bitter and cynical. They finally reach the threshold of the room.
They are warned that the room will grant their innermost wish, which may not be the best thing. For example, a previous fellow who went in had a wish that in some way required the death of his brother to make possible, and the wishee ended up killing himself a week later for guilt. They ask the Writer to go in first, but had to go through the tunnel first and he’s not gonna go, godammit! So they ask the Professor to go, and he reveals that he has a bomb. He’s going to destroy the room, because it might one day fall into the wrong hands. They have a physical and verbal fight for the bomb, but the Stalker can’t get it, causing him more anguish, since the promise of the Zone is “all the people of this Earth have left.”
They talk. Eventually the Professor disassembles the bomb and throws it away. They all sit down together, and it starts raining inside, into a pool of water in the foreground. We see a fish near the detonator, then a black pool of oil spreads over the water.
Now we are back in the bar, the men having returned. A black dog that they saw in the Zone has returned with the Stalker. He goes home and laments the soul-deadness of the two men, how you can’t choose the personalities of who you travel with, and that people should be so without hope. His wife says that he should pity them, but he seems to take it very personally, that they cannot appreciate the gift he would have given them. We never find out if they made it into the room, but I came away feeling like they all just waited outside.
The Stalker’s wife then makes a speech, to the camera, about how difficult it is to love a Stalker, what with him being emotionally distant and the time in jail and the mutant children and all—Girls, it ain’t easy. Then we see their daughter wandering around, having to use crutches. She sits down at a table as we hear the sound of a train going by—like in the first scene of the film—and she stares at three glasses, sliding them across a table, apparently with her mind, until one falls off. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END
It was very poetic. I think one has to consider it more as a visual poem than anything, and the reasons I say that is that it unfolds with a number of beautiful images and evocative ideas, none of which come to any definite point or statement, but which define the ideas, and the act of experiencing and processing them, as the point. The images are held so long [the movie is 163 minutes and there are only 142 shots] that in a way you stop paying attention to what is “happening” and enter into a subconscious haze, where several interesting thoughts play through your mind: dreary lives in squalor without hope, bitterness and the inability to escape it, having to submit oneself to a higher power, not being able to choose your companions, your combined personalities creating your experience, and more. One spends the entire movie thinking something is just about to happen, but one doesn’t really resent the movie when it doesn’t, since the whole journey WAS the experience.
Apparently much of the exteriors were shot in Tallin, Estonia, where there is now a plaque up commemorating this movie’s production. Tarkovsky shot all of the exteriors with one cinematographer, whom he had a rather troubled relationship with, then later discovered that all of his footage, a year’s worth of work, was damaged and unusable. This apparently almost caused the director a nervous breakdown. He began again with another cinematographer, and interestingly, people who have seen both say that the footage was virtually identical. Ultimately it ended up taking three years to finish the film. Some see it as prophetic of Chernobyl, where you have another Russian Zone that is cordoned off and cannot be visited.
This film ends up being strikingly thematically similar to Solaris, in structure and topic. There is a prologue in a dreary real world where the characters are set up, then they venture into a place where the rules of nature are suspended, and they are forced to take a deep journey into their minds and emotions. One could see the planet is Solaris as granting wishes, like the room is said to do here. The personalities of the primary people involved, three men in both cases, create the circumstances they have to deal with. Both films end with them returning, in a sense, to the environment of the beginning, with vastly different perspectives, based on their experience. In retrospect, Solaris has a little more of a hook, but this one is perhaps richer and more rewarding, and also has much greater visual variety.
Anyway, certainly a specialized taste, and a film that will bore the eyelids off people who aren’t prepared for how very slow Tarkovsky can be, but one that that is thoughtful and beautiful and very much worth watching.
Well, it’s undeniably very good, but also extremely esoteric and most people will probably not want to sit through it.
SOLARIS is another science fiction film by the same director, follows a similar structure and has perhaps has a touch more of a "hook."