The Story of Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Troubled (and Even Deadly) Sci-Fi Masterpiece

Andrei Tarkovsky is a pop­u­lar film­mak­er. This will come as a sur­prise to those who know the Sovi­et mas­ter most­ly by his rep­u­ta­tion as a mak­er of movies so poet­ic, seri­ous, and delib­er­ate of pace that they alter their view­ers’ rela­tion­ship to time itself. Yet Stalk­er, which ranks among his very most poet­ic, seri­ous, and delib­er­ate works, was, as of the record­ing of the video essay above by Youtu­ber Cin­e­maTyler, the most streamed movie on the Cri­te­ri­on Chan­nel. Not only that, but the essay itself, Stalk­er (1979): The Sci-Fi Mas­ter­piece That Killed Its Direc­tor,” has as of this writ­ing racked up more than 1.6 mil­lion views.

As Cin­e­maTyler’s most-seen episode, this Stalk­er exe­ge­sis out­ranks in pop­u­lar­i­ty his analy­ses of clas­sics like Blade Run­nerNorth by North­west, and Mon­ty Python and the Holy Grail. It has also drawn more view­ers than his many videos on the work of Stan­ley Kubrick, from The Shin­ing and 2001: A Space Odyssey to Bar­ry Lyn­don and A Clock­work Orange. But for an auteur enthu­si­ast of his kind, one can hard­ly begin dis­cussing Kubrick with­out bring­ing up Tarkovsky, and vice ver­sa. Some points of com­par­i­son are more obvi­ous than oth­ers: Cin­e­maTyler men­tions Tarkovsky’s low opin­ion of 2001, which played a part in shap­ing the stark­ly dif­fer­ent look and feel of his own first sci­ence-fic­tion pic­ture Solaris.

There’s also a ref­er­ence to “Kubrick/Tarkovsky,” a video essay pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture that cat­a­logs the sub­tler visu­al res­o­nances between their films. “Kubrick is one side of the brain,” as Cin­e­maTyler puts it, “and Tarkovsky the oth­er.” As much as they have in com­mon on a deep­er lev­el, on the sur­face Kubrick and Tarkovsky’s oeu­vres both oppose and com­ple­ment each oth­er. While Kubrick worked only in gen­res, Tarkovsky most­ly eschewed them: Stalk­er, which came out sev­en years after Solaris, pulls sci-fi almost unrec­og­niz­ably far into his own aes­thet­ic ter­ri­to­ry.

This thrust Tarkovsky and his col­lab­o­ra­tors into their most ardu­ous film­mak­ing effort yet: they had to exe­cute com­pli­cat­ed setups in real indus­tri­al waste­lands, make sev­er­al changes of cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er, and even shoot the entire movie twice after prob­lems with the ini­tial film stock. Cin­e­maTyler recounts these dif­fi­cul­ties and oth­ers, not ignor­ing the wide­ly held sus­pi­cion that these poi­so­nous loca­tions ulti­mate­ly caused the deaths of sev­er­al of its cre­ators, includ­ing Tarkovsky him­self. Kubrick­’s shoots were also noto­ri­ous­ly dif­fi­cult, of course, but none demand­ed quite the sac­ri­fice Stalk­er did — and arguably, none pro­duced quite an inex­plic­a­bly com­pelling a cin­e­mat­ic expe­ri­ence.

You can pick up a copy of Stalk­er on Blu-ray.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online: Watch the Films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Arguably the Most Respect­ed Film­mak­er of All Time

Slavoj Žižek Explains the Artistry of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Films: Solaris, Stalk­er & More

“Kubrick/Tarkovsky”: A Video Essay Explores the Visu­al Sim­i­lar­i­ties Between the Two “Cin­e­mat­ic Giants”

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mas­ter­piece Stalk­er Gets Adapt­ed into a Video Game

Tarkovsky’s Advice to Young Film­mak­ers: Sac­ri­fice Your­self for Cin­e­ma

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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