There’s really no precedent for a story as linear as Stalker’s to appear to take such mighty turns. It’s science fiction devoid of technology, a horror film minus the monsters, and a road movie without any detours; two and a half transfixing hours of mounting tension and dread, punctuated with a handful of extraordinary shots that amp up our astonishment in ways only the best plot twists ever could. The first comes early on, as the titular Stalker leads the Professor and the Writer into the fabled Zone, a mysterious and dynamic space that houses at its core the answers to everything. In an endless tracking shot, the travelers leave behind the bleak, colorless world of man and enter the lush, hallowed ground of the Zone. The transition to color is so subtle that by the time it hits you, a gasp in awe can hardly be helped. Such remarkable shots are prone to happen in Tarkovsky films, and nowhere are they as abundant or as staggeringly beautiful as in Stalker.
That doesn’t make this easy viewing; in fact, I can’t think of a more grueling film experience. If Stalker is a horror film, then it’s because it confronts the viewer with the most terrifying prospect of nothingness. Chilling as the Stalker’s cryptic tales and the overgrown landscapes they traverse are, the real terror lies in the threat that their search for meaning will turn up empty. The Professor clings to his knowledge, the Writer to his legacy, and the Stalker to is family’s meager existence, and although deeper motivations abound, there’s a mutual drive to make sense of it all, and for the Stalker in particular, to justify all human suffering. They risk all manner of peril within the Zone for such basic answers, but one gets the sense that their journey is doomed, and the proceedings will reduce anyone to a hollow shell, sapped of all life and hope.
But true to form, Tarkovsky leaves us with a final shot that turns, tosses, and topples the tables in such a way that an entire meaning of the film can be amended in seconds. Simple, haunting and unexpected, its power and effect are unparalleled. Quite suddenly the most emotionally draining of films has a fire lit under it, and as the final punctuation mark, it’s the one that seems most definitive. It’s an extraordinary ending, but with Tarkovsky’s track record and the mesmerizing journey that precedes it, anything less would be a disappointment.