Andrei Tarkovsky is one of those names that strikes a certain intimidating foreboding in even the heartiest, most adventuresome of moviegoers, a filmmaker who is arguably more respected than deeply known. The rereleases of two of his films, 1979's "Stalker" and 1972's "Solaris," may help change that.
The films' screenings this week at the Nuart — "Stalker" plays Friday to Monday, "Solaris" Tuesday to Thursday — provide a great opportunity to consider them anew. It's also a pleasant happenstance that they are hitting local screens at the same time that "Alien: Covenant" is opening. The recent turn toward deeper, metaphysical considerations in that venerable franchise only makes Tarkovsky's heady, poetic takes on science-fiction seem that much more fully realized.
"Solaris" has up to now been the better-known of the two, in part for its more easily graspable lost-in-space story line and also for Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake. Which makes "Stalker" the real revelation of the pair. "Stalker" recently broke box office records when it played at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City and, incredibly, had the second-highest per-screen average nationwide behind only the opening of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." (A very different kind of science fiction film.)
Based on the novel "Roadside Picnic" by brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, who adapted the screenplay, the film is set in a vague time and place that seems largely made up of either dilapidated industrial spaces or overgrown fields and forests. (It was made well before the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster; many have noted the film's oddly prophetic feel.) A man known as the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) prepares to lead two men, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the abandoned wasteland of the Zone. There they hope to find the Room, a mystical place said to fulfill people's deepest desires.
The film has a hypnotic pull, drawing the viewer deeper and deeper into its enigmatic adventure by crafting a world all its own. In reviewing Geoff Dyer's 2012 book on the film titled "Zona," critic J. Hoberman noted, "With its emphasis on landscape, texture and atmosphere, this brooding, dystopian science fiction … is as much environment as movie."
The pulsing, electronic score by composer Eduard Artemyev adds to the film's unusual tone, at once languid and anxious. Moments of brief, decisive action interrupt the long conversations in which the men question the very nature of what they are doing and why. A thrilling scene in which their vehicle struggles to find traction against railroad tracks is unexpectedly reminiscent of William Friedkin's own dark adventure tale, "Sorcerer."
"Stalker" has an odd, pained history. A large portion of the film had to be reshot after problems processing the original footage. Times critic Charles Champlin was at the film's surprise screening as part of the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, where the audience apparently had been hoping the unannounced title would turn out to be Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." When the power was cut off partway through the screening due to a national worker's strike, many did not wait for it to restart, perhaps immediately sealing the fate of "Stalker" as a work of enigmatic mystery.
Writing about the film's first Los Angeles engagement in 1983, Times critic Kevin Thomas declared Tarkovsky "the Soviet cinema's one genius and its most honest voice." He added, "The worlds in which Tarkovsky plunges us becomes utterly compelling — even as they weary — and we emerge feeling that we have experienced a revelation, no matter how shrouded in ambiguity."
"Stalker" would be the last film Tarkovsky would make in Russia. His next two features, "Nostalghia" and "The Sacrifice," were made outside the country as Tarkovsky lived in exile. He would die in 1986 at age 54 from cancer that some speculated was related to the industrialized locations of "Stalker."
The rereleases of "Stalker" and "Solaris" reposition both films for current audiences. These are enveloping, overwhelming works, particularly when seen on the big screen, and make provocative additions to considerations of modern, philosophical sci-fi.