Based on the novel "Roadside Picnic" by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Tarkovsky takes the basic premise of the source material while discarding many of the science-fiction elements to create a film that is packed with ideas, haunting in its imagery, and hard to define.
A short text scroll at the beginning explains the premise. Some unknown event has led to a Zone being cordoned off from the public. Now guarded by the military, this Zone, is a no-go area and what happened there and what is present there is largely a mystery, save to a few brave individuals known as Stalkers who enter the Zone for personal profit.
We are introduced to a man (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) living in a run-down apartment with his wife and young daughter. This man is a Stalker and is soon hired as a guide by two other men, known only as "Writer" (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and "Professor" (Nikolai Grinko), who wish to enter the Zone. The writer is out of ideas for stories and hopes to find inspiration. The professor ostensibly wants to research what is happening in the Zone. When they enter the Stalker tells them about the dangers of the Zone and that they must move slowly, or the Zone might kill them. The Stalker's own daughter is suffering an unknown condition due to her father's connection with the Zone, and there are definite hints that there may be something like a radiation or nuclear threat in the Zone. He tells his two companions that there is a place in the Zone that is said to grant any wish.
The plot of the film is stripped down to its essentials. It is three men on a quest to find a mysterious room that grants their wish. There is something almost mythological about their journey. What we get in place of plot twists is a highly philosophical film about the nature of mankind. The question posed early on in the film is "What is it that people are searching for?" or "What is the motivation to live"? Whether this is the thrill of scientific investigation, the desire to create work, or a monetary incentive in the case of the Stalker, everybody is forced at some point to consider why they are here, or what they are for. To look at this in a more pessimistic light, one might wonder if there is any point to our endeavours in a world that seems indifferent, is there any light at the end of the tunnel? This is the question that pervades the film and it is one that we are forced to confront as the men trudge on towards their destination. Later in the film another quandary is raised. When the men finally reach the room that is said to grant their desires, they hesitate. They have come up against the problem that has troubled many. If you were given everything you wanted, would you accept it. There are certainly biblical overtones, hinted at by early recitation of scripture. What is in the room, indeed the nature of the Zone, is never fully explained, but it is a placeholder for a divine being, an omnipotence, or ultimate, that is finally within their reach. This leads to the men discussing a belief in such a thing, and what that means in terms of how they live their lives. What it means to search for such a thing, and what it means to reject it in favour of struggling on without such hope.
Director Andrei Tarkovsky has a fantastic flair for visuals and framing. There are some haunting sequences, such as a long walk along a curving corridor which slowly builds dread. The pace is very slow at times and though we never see any dangers, we sense that they are stepping into a highly dangerous environment. This could be construed as them confronting their own desires, and their own thoughts. The film also shifts from both two-tone, brownish hues, to full colour when they are in the Zone. As with much else, the significance of this is left up to the viewer. It leads one to speculate that perhaps the Zone, containing as it does the hope of a better life, is a more vibrant place, than the dull outside world, a world of military and machines and poverty.
There are a number of interpretations for what is happening to them in the Zone. A blend of theological and psychological discussion that is potent because of its uncertainty. In many ways the audience are allowed to project their own thoughts or fears about the meaning or purpose of life into the events. The Zone is whatever you believe it to be.
I would highly recommend this film as a classic of science-fiction. It is not for everyone and the pace and length may be off-putting to some, but if you can survive it, you will come out of the other side with a deeper understanding of what it is to be human.