“Utterly Compelling”: The Most Mesmerising SF Movie You’ve Never Seen!

And man exists to create… great art

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“The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise, it will punish” – Stalker.  

In the annals of modern cinema, it would appear that while people flock to watch ninja mutant turtles, some of the finest celluloid masterpieces lie neglected somewhere. This is the story of one such near-forgotten treasure.

Having savoured many fine SF delights in my time, complacent enough to believe that all the good movies, books and comics have been well and truly devoured, every so often – out of the blue –it is still possible to be struck by a bolt of absolute, unparalleled brilliance. On a few occasions, the above still – a mysterious yet overpoweringly cool image – has been seen. Frustratingly, there were never any revealing captions to reveal what it was or from whence it came. But then, just a fortnight ago, while searching for something else – isn’t that always the way? – a piece of music, in fact, my eyes caught this pic in a Youtube Suggestions box (of all places).

Eureka!

The name: “Stalker” did not mean anything to me. The 5-minute track which accompanied the pic, listed as “Meditation” was composed by Edward Artemiev, who provided the score for the Russian movie: Solaris, a widely revered masterpiece of World Cinema. It is a fantastic hypnotic piece of music (now played daily, even swirling around inside my headphones this very moment as the keyboard is battered relentlessly).

And the search to find the movie was on!

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^ Trying to enter the Zone through gritty monochrome back streets (l) and then finding “the quietest place in the world” (r)

“A vast prose-poem on celluloid whose forms and ideas were to be borrowed by moviemakers like Lynch and Spielberg” – Peter Bradshaw.

Stalker – directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, a stalwart of Soviet cinema – tells how a meteorite supposedly crashed in the USSR many years ago and the authorities cordoned off the area, labelling it: “the Zone.” Whoever went in to investigate the truth were never seen again; rumours spread that normal laws of physics did not exist there, and deep within this Zone, there was the Room, a special place where people’s innermost wishes and desires can come true. Despite being forbidden to enter, countless souls yearned to find out what the Room has to offer.

Enter the Stalkers: special guides who – for a price, of course – can help the curious avoid the traps and take them to the Room. Here, the Stalker (played by Alexander Kaidanovsky) agrees to take two clients, known only as Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko) into this restricted area. The rest of the film concentrates on these unlikely adventurers infiltratingand exploring the Zone, but more importantly, can they find the Room, and are they prepared mentally to enter it?

Chillingly, the Stalker himself describes the Zone as “the quietest place in the world.” In one interview, Tarkovsky suggested that the Zone did not exist, and was a figment of Stalker’s imagination. Whatever the truth behind this most beguiling of enigmatic plot devices, the film’s uncanny yet subtle ability to twist the minds of more discerning cinema-goers remains undiminished.

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^ Abandoned features of the Zone (l) and realising they have lost the Professor and are lost themselves (r)

“Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic inquiry into freedom and faith presents an arduous journey for the spectator, but conjures up its own mystical universe with majestic conviction” – Total Film.

Upon its release in 1979, critics – in awe of its “raw emotional impact” and “multi-layered visual resonance” – discussed Stalker endlessly, trying to derive real meaning from the seemingly ambiguous images and dialogue. Not until 1986, and the frightening calamity of the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl did it all come together. Suddenly, the eerie wasteland, the abandoned tanks, the cobweb-ridden bushes and all the desolate lifeless features made startling sense.

Stalker is described as an art film, which means that the first 37 minutes are in gritty monochrome. As the trio travel into the core of the Zone (by rail), colour appears, but it’s fairly muted – most notably, the overgrown grass appears to have a greyish tint; and there are long atmospheric panning shots of bygone artefacts of past lives strewn in shallow water. If the subtitles on my copy are reliable, then it can be confidently stated that the dialogue is a joy to read, consisting mainly of enriching and poetic lines. The screenplay was written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, loosely based on their own novel: “Roadside Picnic”.

Behind the indomitable legend lies an unbearable legacy. As filming took place near a disused chemical plant outside Tallinn, Estonia, the toxic surroundings would eventually catch up with members of the cast and crew. To compound the hazards, the original film stock was ruined and all scenes had to be reshot. Talk about double exposure

The actor who played Writer: Anatoli Solonitsyn died of cancer, while Tarkovsky himself succumbed to cancer just months after the Chernobyl disaster occurred, but at least their contributions to the art of World Cinema will forever be honoured. In a recent poll, members of the BFI voted it Second Greatest Movie (behind Blade Runner); on the Rotten Tomatoes movie website, it holds a perfect 100%.

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^ So many iconic images to choose from; note the religious connotations (r)

“Every single frame of the film is burned into my retina” – Cate Blanchett.  

To what extent does science feature in this languid fiction? Other than allusions to that meteorite, and the dubious promise of otherworldly powers, there is actually very little to tie this film with an SF tag. Essentially, it works as a meditative psychological drama, and with some hypnotic long and lingering shots, meticulously framed by Tarkovsky, this makes for a rewarding visual feast.

Crucially, the film skilfully incorporates the age-old science vs religion dilemma, with Stalker instilling his faith in the Zone, while his two companions represent the cynical intellect of restless enquiring minds. As they trudge ever closer to the Room, the moods of all three become more agitated and introspective…

It has been said that Solaris is the Soviet 2001. A similar comparison can certainly be given to Stalker. Clarke and Kubrick deliberately set out to raise more questions, rather than provide answers with their powerful yet perplexing masterpiece, and that is most definitely what Tarkovsky strived to accomplish with this majestic and metaphorical work. As for its notoriously plodding pace, there was never a dull moment to be had.

While Writer and Professor experience nothing in the Zone except silence and emptiness, those attributes are precisely what compel Stalker – otherwise burdened with a jobless and hopeless existence – into this area time and time again.

Lastly, it seems quite clear to me that not only does the Zone exist, we make of it what we will because, ultimately, each and every one of us desires such a special place into which we can escape, find solace and be alone with our thoughts.

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Honestly, how – and why! – has Brad been deprived of this classic for so long?

 

 

The Rough Guide to Dystopia

Posted: 7 June 2014

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“We shall shortly be landing in Dystopia. Please fasten your seatbelts and put your seats back in the upright position, thank you”  

One of the most enduring subgenres of modern SF is Dystopia. The definition refers to a bleak future while the name itself is derived from a classical past, i.e. Ancient Greece. “Topos” is place, while “dis” is bad – thus, we are alluding to a “bad place” (as opposed to a “utopia” which is a good place).  One of the solutions to avoid an impending dystopia – as divulged in countless SF tales – is an evacuation from Earth to colonise a planet compatible with ours.

Among the leading proponents of this view include: The Space Merchants (1953) by Frederik Pohl and Foundation (1951) and End of Eternity (1955), both by Isaac Asimov. On the big screen, this idea was last used in Oblivion.

The main problem with dystopian movies now concerns not only their monotonous rate of production, but their contents have lost their shock value; with mass unemployment, debt, climate change and a whole host of other assorted crises, Dystopia is a fast encroaching reality.

The Dystopia is already upon us
The Dystopia is already upon us

“Few writers can take much satisfaction in unrelenting pessimism, and only the most embittered have been content to paint the future utterly black… but many people have tried to map escape-routes from Dystopia” – Brian Stableford.  

One cannot help but be reminded of the scene in Blade Runner (1982) where skyships blurt out: “the chance to start again” with “opportunity and adventure.” That sounds even more tempting now; stop the world, this bunny wants to escape to those “Off-World Colonies”Eerily enough, we’re only five years shy of the date in which Syd Mead’s rain-soaked neon-lit futurescape is brilliantly realised; and we can see with the utmost dread that this Dystopia (once as far-off as it was doom-laden) looks too darned accurate.

Another way to avoid a dystopian outcome would be to forsake modern technology and all the addictive urges which it creates. You’re telling me! Having to deal with superslow and unreliable software has undoubtedly been the bane of my work, as of late, and the reason why this particular Post was not published last Friday. Grrrr…   

Yet during the post-war regeneration, the acceleration of technology was greeted by social analysts as one of the factors in attaining a better life. This might be the case for the majority of the now-gen who seemingly cannot exist without a smartphone, but for this older hack, the urge to lob this laptop outta the window appeals… 

Donald Sutherland: "I have huge admiration for President Snow" Do you embrace the dystopian vision as well, Mr S?
Donald Sutherland: “I have huge admiration for President Snow” Do you embrace the dystopian vision as well, Mr S?

“… If you take from it what I hope you will take from it, it will make you think a little more pungently about the political environment you live in and not be complacent” – Donald Sutherland (on The Hunger Games).  

A Post on this particular subject would not be complete without mentioning the phenomenal success of The Hunger Games. As Followers of this Blog will know, (part of) this movie was viewed only during a long-distance flight and it did not make for pleasant viewing. Once past the utterly absurd and pessimistic premise, the turgid script and the lame lead actors detracted my attention; left glum and disenchanted, the Off button has rarely felt so good. All circus, and no bread.

At first glance, it seems perplexing as to how and why so many teens embrace this stuff. Actually, the concept of brutal factionalised worlds governed by authoritarian entities is basically high school, opined one critic. The mash of Dystopia and oppressed younglings has been a literary combination, long before it became a twinkle in Suzanne Collins’ eye.

Donald Sutherland, the veteran star who played President Coriolanus Snow, described in one article as “a tyrant’s tyrant, with basilisk malevolence,”  viewed The Hunger Games as essentially politically allegorical, offering a “coded commentary” on inequality, power and hope.

In conclusion, despite the fast and frenetic rate of technological development, instead of creating a greater, more fulfilling, society, we suddenly find ourselves nestled in the glum dystopia of our own misguided making.   

That’s enough depressing futures for now – a preferable alternative would be to spend the rest of the evening on Youtube watching cute bunnies falling over.

Goodnight, sleep tight.

For now, "but they'll be back and in greater numbers..."
For now, “but they’ll be back and in greater numbers…”