Stalker is a willfully difficult, philosophical medication on the nature of faith posing as a science fiction film that feels like it would have been significantly more dramatic had it been made during the age of CGI. (Though Tarkovsky wouldn’t be the one to have made it, then.) I have not read the novel its based on but apparently it doesn’t really resemble it, even though the authors were supposedly involved in the screenplay.
There are two important things to know about this movie: “stalker” here does not mean what it means in contemporary English, it means something very different. (“Trespasser” basically.) And this is one of those philosophical science fiction films, and there is very little on screen that resembles what most of us expect from our science fiction. If you know both of these things, you’re likely not going to be as disappointed as some people might be.
There are aspects of the film that are quite interesting. For one thing, the choice of colours: outside “The Zone” is almost brown and white (instead of black and white), and is icky and seems to have inspired many other colour palettes over the years; inside “The Zone” is colour. The sound is also quite interesting and probably worth a lot more attention than I gave it. The power plants they filmed in are appropriately gross.
But the film plods (deliberately) the philosophical debates aren’t as interesting as they’re supposed to be. (Tarkovsky is on record saying he thinks he should have made the beginning even more deliberately slow than it is.) Though I am a big fan of leaving certain things unknown in a film, too much is unknown here, which is why I think the film would have benefitted from some CGI. Most of the “danger” is completely hypothetical, and all we really get is some glowing rocks and a lightbulb, and a character’s inability to move forwards.
I admire Tarkovsky’s subversion of these types of personal journey films with what happens when they get there. I think that takes guts and I think it also makes sense given how the characters have talked and behaved. I can also understand why some people think it’s terrible.
I think the film is thought-provoking and technically interesting. I don’t think it’s the masterpiece so many people say it is partly because of how plodding it is, and partly because of how deliberately opaque it is. But it’s certainly interesting. It’s certainly art.