The best science fiction stories tend to take us to worlds and places unlike any we’ve seen before, whether they’re presenting us with visions of the future (Blade Runner, Snowpiercer) or planets the likes of which we have yet to discover (Ad Astra, Dune). The most effective sci-fi films, however, don’t just show us fantastical worlds and futuristic societies but use their settings to reflect and interrogate humanity’s deepest concerns, fears, and flaws.
Few films do that quite as effectively as Stalker. The 1979 sci-fi masterpiece from Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the most striking films ever made. Clocking in at a staggering 161 minutes, the film follows three men as they explore a territory marred and altered by unknown extraterrestrial technology in the hope of having their greatest desires fulfilled. As you may expect, the journey turns out to be far more complicated and reality-altering than they think it will be.
The seminal sci-fi film is streaming now on HBO Max. Here’s why Inverse recommends that you carve out some time to watch it ASAP.
Set in the distant future, Stalker follows a writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a professor (Nikolai Grinko) as they embark on a journey into a nearby region known only as “The Zone,” which contains a room that is said to fulfill the deepest desires of whoever enters it. Led through The Zone by the film’s titular guide (Alexander Kaidanovsky), Stalker follows the trio as they grapple with the rules and dangers of The Zone, a place in which the most basic laws of physics do not seem to apply.
To put it simply, the journey they undergo is one of the most spellbinding and unique that cinema has ever seen. Shot with director Andrei Tarkovsky’s signature style, which favors long takes and artistic compositions over quick cuts and energetic camera movements, the film is a patient and dreamlike sci-fi adventure, one that simultaneously unnerves and mesmerizes you.
That’s because Tarkovsky relies on some truly ingenious visual tricks to help bring The Zone — and the disorienting effect it has on those who enter it — to life. For instance, the film’s opening section, which follows the Stalker, professor, and writer as they sneak out of their walled-in dystopian city and hop on a railway car that leads them into The Zone, is shot entirely in sepia tones. However, the film turns to color the moment the three men enter The Zone for the first time.
It’s a brilliant visual choice, one that wordlessly makes it clear that The Zone isn’t like the rest of the film’s environments. Meanwhile, during the early stages of the group’s journey through The Zone, Tarkovsky uses geography against the viewer, keeping the trio’s path unclear and, in doing so, making you feel as lost and overwhelmed as the characters by The Zone’s power.
When the men later make it into the subterranean layers of The Zone, Tarkovsky uses his long, steady shots to a similar, devastating effect. That’s especially true when the film’s characters must make their way through dark tunnels and sewers, environments that make you feel like any danger could be lurking around the next corner.
The film’s journey through The Zone ultimately culminates in a surprising, disconcerting fashion. The trio eventually does reach the room, but by the time they do, they’re not looking at it with the same rose-colored eyes they were at the start of their journey.
It’s a subversive, ominous climax to the film’s central “adventure,” one in which Tarvosky uses his camera and actors to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. A quick cut and change in perspective only further add to the ambiguity of the sequence in question — allowing us to see things from the eyes of The Zone for the first time.
But Stalker doesn’t end with its central three characters reaching the room they’ve been searching for during the entire film. Instead, in the film’s final minutes, Tarkovsky not only brings Stalker full-circle but also expands its emotional and intellectual scope by introducing two new perspectives to its story.
And for his last trick, Tarkovsky ends Stalker with a final shot that redefines everything you thought you knew about the film’s world, offering just as many answers as it does questions. It is just about as magical and uncanny as anything that you’ll ever see.
Stalker is available to stream now on HBO Max.