As a filmic adaptation of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) carries the viewer via philosophical drama into what is known as the “Zone”. Although directly taken from the novel, Stalker does not provide any exegesis on the origin of the Zone itself and we are left grasping to understand the seemingly paranoiac trepidation that occurs on the quest. The premise of the film is the seeking of the “Room” by a prolific writer out of inspiration, a professor seeking new discoveries, and ultimately led to this Room by the“Stalker” (a nickname for those who engaged with and understood the zone). The “Room” that they seek is hidden somewhere in the Zone, known only to the Stalker, and is rumored to fulfill the deepest desires of those who visit. As the film (and the quest) advances, deep psychological exploration of the motivations for these three men is conducted. When the trio eventually come to the threshold of the Room, there is a physical struggle as the Stalker finds out that the Professor intends to destroy the Room to prevent its use by evil. Yet, we come to find through the Writer’s epiphany following the fight that the Room is sentient in some fashion; that it is able to reach into the inner heart of a visitor and fulfill desires below consciousness that may even bring great difficulty into ones life. That even if one comes seeking a noble desire, one may return in ignominy. The story of Stalker’s mentor, Porcupine, is recounted as the example: he came seeking to restore his brother’s life and was instead granted incredible wealth. Porcupine then killed himself in shame. Ultimately, none of the men enter the Room and they return home, followed by a distant, yet friendly dog. The closing scene depicts Stalker’s seemingly crippled daughter lazily staring at a glass cup as it slowly glides across and off the edge of a table, leaving the impact of the Zone palpable and yet out of the grasp of reason.

Born of the dark totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, Roadside Picnic and later Stalker, depict a utopian kernel within a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Perhaps the Stalker’s beseeching of the Professor at the threshold of the Room best elucidates the cultural allegory implicit throughout the film, “You want to destroy hope? This is after all, the only place where it is possible to go. There is nothing else left to people. Why destroy hope?” For the Stalker, his deepest inner desire is the fulfillment of his absolute belief in the transformational power of the Room. He lives on the belief that his altruistic guide work leads others to hope for a better future among the rubble of their dystopic everyday life. He will never enter the Room so that he may continue to shepherd as many as possible through the wastes. Although the film is not explicitly Soviet in its location, Stalker‘s presentation of hope and absolute belief/faith would instantly be recognizable to the downtrodden of the Soviet Bloc. The corrupt and failing, macro-political and economic reformations of the 1970’s left the dream of a socialist utopia in dingy stagnation. In both the broader Soviet culture and in the film, utopian dreams ask for absolute belief and hope. The “anyman” of the 70s Soviet world could be recognized through the Stalker as one who is reaching for hope and positive renewal from some hidden recess within, while the external political world crumbles.

Interestingly, the Zone is known (more explicitly in the book) to cause strange mutations in the children of Stalkers. In the film the Stalker’s daughter is implied to have lost the ability to walk (though in the book she is mobile and furred). Although this leaves us with a strong sense of the Zone’s ecological danger leading to genetic mutation, her uniqueness can also be read as a sort of ideological break from the past. Vladiv-Glover argues that this child “represents hope and belief in a future which will return society to normalcy, overcoming the legacy of fanaticism (belief for the sake of belief) of the fathers” (44). She is radically detached from her father’s unrelenting belief in the desire-fulfilling function of the Zone. The final scene of the film in which she appears to be taken steps on her own regardless of the previous immobility points directly to this interpretation. Yet, ultimately, as with all Tarkovsky films, there is left unresolved tension. In this case it resides between Stalker’s absolute belief and the rest of reality.