When Andrei Tarkovsky’s last Russian-made film opens, viewers are transported to a haunting post-apocalyptic sepia-toned wasteland, sometime after a meteor crashes into Earth. In its wake: the mysterious creation of a vivid, colorful patch of wilderness everyone calls The Zone. With its perimeter heavily controlled by the military, The Zone is a seldom-visited place of myth, dangerous psychological traps and treacherous terrain. The only people who dare to traverse its metaphysical qualities are known as “Stalkers,” who illegally guide curious men with money to a storied place called The Room, which, as the legend goes, grants every human being their innermost desires.

In this imaginative, dystopian world, based on the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, Tarkovsky uses a journey to The Room to draw out the perspectives of its three protagonists: Writer, Professor, and Stalker, all with incredibly different viewpoints on society and life. Throughout this arduous trek, the characters divulge their reasons for wanting to visit The Room, despite the danger and illegal nature of doing so. And it’s in the midst of this journey that the film’s most compelling theme comes to light as a masterful allegory about the power of cultural conspiracy to take hold of the most rational, accomplished and well-meaning of men, capable of sabotaging their greatest ambitions, breaking their spirit and derailing their lives.

Stalker, at its core, is less about anyone’s arrival or experience at The Room and fulfilling one’s innermost desires as it is about exploring the psychological depths of how our human desires are shaped and shifted by the power and stronghold of the narratives we tell ourselves, each other and society. Throughout the film, we learn of the things that make these men miserable: lack of fame and inspiration, lack of authority and rule, lack of wealth and intellect—all seemingly shaped by social narratives that tell them who and how to be and what happens when they fall short of these expectations.

In his essay “Utopia and Science Fiction,” Raymond Williams defines one type of utopia science fiction as “paradise.” These are stories, he writes, “in which a happier life is simply described as existing elsewhere” (p. 203).  In Stalker, we enter the story already suspect of The Room’s ability to truly deliver on the utopian happiness it shallowly promises – and we are instantly aware that The Room is a kind of social, sinister conspiracy narrative in its own right.

In an early scene, Writer, drunk, had met and befriended a woman to tag along on his scheduled trip into The Zone. Before she is turned away by Stalker at the onset of their journey, Writer rejects her musings of aliens, UFOs and supernatural legends connected to The Room and says, “My dear the world is utterably boring. Don’t hope for flying saucers that would be too interesting…In the Middle Ages, life was interesting.” It’s instantly clear that the lore of The Room is what ultimately brings this band of miserable men together to risk their lives for the lark of a compelling narrative – and that their lives are so boring, the story of their journey alone is well worth the risk.

In a New York Times column for The Stone titled, “The Stories We Tell Ourselves,” Todd May writes “We tell stories that make us seem adventurous, or funny or strong. We tell stories that make our lives seem interesting.” He argues we do so even when it might seem disadvantageous, or negative. He writes, “Think, for instance, of people whose stories about themselves are often about things not working out for them. Whatever they try, they fail: the world conspires against them. These stories express values as well…they buttress a view of the world that justifies their being who they are and not someone more accomplished or happy or social.” At the heart of Stalker, the story we tell ourselves – the things we want, love, and fear are not to be trusted. Innermost desire, as we learn of the journey to The Zone is not necessarily something that ought to be fulfilled or sought out. And our individual desires, often reflect similar societal plights of scores of writers, professors, faithful men who came before us, memorialized parables instructing and informing what we do, what we desire.

Like The Zone, the realities of the stories we cling to aren’t always clear. What’s more, in Stalker, the industrial post-apocalyptic present looks much more miserable than the wild, feral world of The Zone, but the men remained conflicted within it – not necessarily by the so-called “powers” of The Zone, but by the stories they swap about them: myths of others who traversed it, their own shortcomings, their superstitions and their annoyances with each other. With its lush greenery and fog-fresh foliage, The Zone might as well be the natural state of man, pure imagination; fact and fiction arbitrary. At the very least, it’s a world nearly free of technology and monotony, ruled by mysticism, nature and the unexpected—a possible metaphor rebelling against the technology conspiring magnificently against us.

Perhaps here one could draw a parallel to the rise of disinformation and the way that conspiracy stories spread on social media to the theme of self-delusion and narrative-making in Stalker, but we’ll save that for another time. The true power of cultural conspiracy in Stalker is that these stories make ordinary and boring things seem, as Writer attests, interesting: bureaucratic governments, the obscure activity of the rich, the endless black expanse of space, the sterile operations of a laboratory, the monotony of work, the finitude of death.

Dictionary.com defines conspiracy as “a theory that rejects the standard explanation for an event and instead credits a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plot.” Maybe in the conspiratorial, we find a bit of a reprieve from the endless chain of cause-and-effect, of the ubiquity of evolution. Could it be that in conspiracy, humans find a kind of individualistic faith; in our own imaginations or, ironically, in the agency afforded us by being unwitting victims in a clandestine plot?

It’s worth mentioning Stalker’s connection to cultural conspiracy extends well beyond the script and screen – and with so much visual representation of industrialization and nature (the scenes of The Zone were filmed within an abandoned nuclear power plant in Estonia), it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Chernobyl, which didn’t occur until seven years after the film was released. And yet, the people employed to take care of Chernobyl after the infamous radioactive explosion came to embrace the fiction of this story as their own truth, when they came to be known as “Stalkers” in a very real post-apocalyptic world.

 

Works cited

May, Todd. “The Stories We Tell Ourselves.” The New York Times. January 16, 2017

Stalker. Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky. Janus Films. 1979. Film

Williams, Raymond. 1978. “Utopia and Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 5(3):203-14.