About once every month, I find myself thinking about the films of Andrei Tarkovsky or talking about them with friends. I suppose he’s being held as a kind of arthouse cinematic ideal these days because he was one of the last directors who could work with major resources to create movies that weren’t commercial but deeply personal in their interest in spiritual inquiry. He was the master of creating elaborately-choreographed setpieces in a single take, like in ANDREI RUBLEV, seeming to control even the elements so that the wind seemed to sweep across the grass at the right time at the wave of someone’s hand as if a supernatural force had been summoned on cue.
Tarkovsky’s movies came out at a time when there was a more notable arthouse market and there was a sense that they mattered as an alternative to Hollywood commercialism. In the more cutthroat market of commercial absolutes we have now, a Tarkovsky would not get as much attention, and as a result would not be able to get the budgets he would need to make the movies he’s known for. Thus many of the filmmakers that followed him that might be in the same league are largely unknown in the US because of the box office bottom line these days, and it’s only the most esoteric movie buffs, itself a form of geekdom, would know about them, they don’t always have access to the budgets that might do their visions justice. To skeptics and people who don’t like to read subtitles, films by Tarkovsky are more like medicine than any fun at all: they’re long, lugubrious, slow, portentous, and that’s not an invalid opinion. Yet Tarkovsky’s images were often so beautiful, so mysterious and so indelible that adverts and other filmmakers have been ripping them off wholesale since the 1980s. But the biggest contribution Tarkovsky has unwittingly made to pop culture has been in Science Fiction.
Tarkovsky has only made two Science Fiction movies, SOLARIS (1972) and STALKER (1979), both adaptations of books, and with similar themes. He basically translated his restless quest for spiritual faith into a Science Fictional context where the alien was a stand-in for the ineffable and the mysterious, and as such they were brilliant in their exploration of the Unknowable. SOLARIS was originally written by Polish author Stanislav Lem and concerns a scientist sent to investigate why the crew of a space station orbiting a mysterious planet, has gone radio silent. He finds that the astronauts on the station are traumatized by visitations from the dead, and he is himself visited by his late wife, rekindling his own guilt and grief over her loss as he discovers that these imperfect copies of lost loved ones were created by the planet below. One of my writing partners reminded me that it’s not the Bergman-esque story of the depressed scientist reliving his doomed marriage that’s particularly interesting but the underlying Science Fictional idea driving the story: that of an alien intelligence with no knowledge or basis of reference trying to communicate with another intelligent species. The planet Solaris is alive and telepathic, and it creates imperfect copies of the astronauts’ cherished and lost loved ones as an interface to try to communicate with them, except it has no conception of emotions at all, and the insurmountable problems of having no common language or understanding start to accumulate. This was a rare instance of Science Fiction Film that really tries to deal with the politics of the alien and Otherness instead of stories about the dangers of technology in the lives of people or war allegories in the form of invasion.
STALKER is the movie that introduces The Zone, a piece of real estate on Earth that becomes cataclysmically altered after an alien visitation. The Zone is an unfathomable, unpredictable wasteland that becomes either a death-trap or treasure trove to those brave, crazy or greedy enough to enter it. Time and the laws of physic work differently there. Hallucinations are commonplace. Artefacts left behind by the aliens might yield technological riches, if anyone could get their hands on them. People, especially children in or near The Zone can be altered, becoming mutants or something weirder. The Zone also gets into the mind, and may or may not grant wishes, which is why people risk entering it. Tarkovsky stripped down the Sturgatskys’ novel into something more minimal and archetypal, using no model effects or action setpieces, instead relying on camera movement, colour, art direction and composition to create an atmosphere of utter alien-ness as his searchers follow the stalker they hired to pursue their agendas and are confronted with their innermost doubts and secrets. It is a place where people are forced to confront what they really are, not what they think they are.
The idea of the alien sentient zone is really an amalgamation of Lem’s SOLARIS and the Sturgatskys’ ROADSIDE PICNIC. Those authors should be given due credit, but alas, in our image-obsessed culture, nothing becomes commonplace until it’s actually seen rather than just read, and it fell to Tarkovsky to bring it to the eyeballs of the general populace. I don’t think Tarkovsky could have made STALKER without having made SOLARIS first, since STALKER is an extension and evolution of the ideas he explored in the latter. I’m fascinated by how it’s made its way into mainstream pop culture. It has become a meme that seeps into the minds of screenwriters and other practitioners of mainstream stories. Some of these current storytellers may not even have seen Tarkovsky’s movies, and they might not even have read the books, but the idea of the living planet or zone has found its way into pop culture ever since.
Paul WS Anderson’s EVENT HORIZON was really an intellectually lazy horror remake of SOLARIS with the serial numbers filed off. The heroes are haunted by visions and manifestations on the abandoned ship created by a malevolent presence that turns out to be a portal to Hell itself that had been opened on the ship.
Steven Soderbergh admired SOLARIS enough to remake it with George Clooney and at a runtime half as long as Tarkovsky’s version, but alas missing the point about the alien planet trying to communicate with the humans by recreating their dead loved ones, instead concentrating on the least interesting part of the story: the hero reliving his doomed relationship with his dead wife and repeating its decline and death. That an intelligent director like Soderbergh should miss or ignore the real ideas to concentrate on a banal love story is symptomatic of how Hollywood tends to stay the hell away from big ideas.
The island in LOST, with its smoke monster, hallucinations of dead people from the characters’ pasts, jumps in Time and Space, is really another iteration of the Zone with a more malevolent version of Solaris.
The Russian-made computer First Person Shooter game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: SHADOW OF CHERNOBYL and its sequels, where the player is a mercenary trudging through an altered and alien Chernobyl, complete with mutants, alien artefacts and strange time dilations, are overtly STALKER/ROADSIDE PICNIC with guns.
The anime spy series DARKER THAN BLACK and its second season, DARKER THAN BLACK: GEMINI feature the latest bastard offspring of The Zone. You can tell the makers are well-versed in both ROADSIDE PICNIC and STALKER in their translation of The Zone, here called The Black Gate, into a site whose owership is fought over by intelligence agencies using Contractors, superpowered agents altered by The Zone. The series even shares the same elliptical mode of storytelling that Tarkovsky used, where the truly cosmic and most significant events take place off-screen while the main characters’ struggles are only a tiny corner of the bigger picture, and what’s really going on is slowly revealed as most of it takes place off-stage while the Contractors plot and kill each other. The series is a science fictional exploration of the morality of espionage, and the cost in lives and souls of both innocents and combatants.
What intrigues me is that The Zone is not only a place, it’s a state of mind, a meme that keeps getting replicated and mutated in the waters of the culture, going from mind to mind, living on in our brains, manifesting when we least expect it, in the last places we expect. It’s abstract, immutable, and undying. It’ll be back, again and again, because it doesn’t go away.
Meanwhile, I think my living room is turning into a Zone. I need to vacuum.
Every movie and TV show mentioned in this column is available on DVD. I don’t own any of them, just rented them. The book versions of SOLARIS and ROADSIDE PICNIC should still be available, even if second-hand, which is how I found copies.
Zoning out at email@example.com
© Adisakdi Tantimedh
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl:
Darker than Black: