As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the film, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.
Stalker is a Soviet film made in the late 1970s by the renowned director Andrei Tarkovsky. The film stars Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy (Stalker), Anatoliy Solonitsyn (the Writer), and Nikolay Grinko (the Professor - a physicist); and is based off the book Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
The film revolves around a restricted area known as The Zone, where there exists a room in which one's inner most desires come to fruition. Only stalkers can successfully navigate The Zone without dying in any of the real or imaginary pitfalls (or so we're told). Tarkovsky does a fantastic job creating a magnificent masterpiece which transcends any philosophical or religious dissection; or even any attempt to define what it is really about—and it is about an industrial world gone awry, what it means to be human, and the meaning of life. Well, that and among many other things, because as soon as you name that thing—that thing the movie is about, what you've just defined loses all meaning. Welcome to transcendence.
Early in the film we see the Writer romanticizing a woman, telling her that everything paranormal is fake. Ghosts, goblins, gods ... the Bermuda Triangle, you name it. Hell, even UFOs. Hence, the world is such a boring place. Now, back in the Middle Ages, that was the time to be living! A time when every home had a goblin or ghoul and everyone believed in a god (or two)—and thus, there was some mystery remaining in life. The irony here is however, though the Writer (and also the Professor) don't believe in the supernatural, they are headed to a mystical place—unhappy with life, unhappy with who they have become—they secretly seek meaning. But the Zone doesn't grant happiness, it grants your inner most desire. The two don't necessarily go hand in hand.
As was the case with Porcupine (a former stalker who taught the Stalker), he lost his brother to the meat grinder (an existential tunnel that turned him into human stroganoff, meat grinder-aka life), Porcupine entered the room and pleaded for his brother's return. But getting his brother back wasn't actually his innermost desire. It was money, it was becoming rich, and once he became rich, he realized that being rich didn't equate to being happy. So, what could he do? He killed himself. Perhaps out of guilt, perhaps out of grief, perhaps out of coming to terms with what we are at the core—none of it really matters. You see, what we want consciously may not be what we want subconsciously. The Writer explains this very well early in the story.
Writer: It's all a lie. I don't give a damn about inspiration. But how can I put a name to ... what it is that I want? How am I to know I don't want what I want or that I really don't want what I don't want? These are intangibles where the moment you name them, their meaning evaporates like jellyfish in the sun. You've seen them around. My consciousness wants the triumph of vegetarianism. My subconscious longs for a juicy steak. So what do I want?
The Writer later in the move would come to realize his own crisis of identity, saying that his readers changed him, molded him into their own image, as society so often does. He wanted to change the world, but it changed him. So not only does he not know what he wants, or which want to even want, but he doesn't know who he is any longer either. Eventually, he would find himself again realizing that is what he really wanted all along. He didn't need the Room to grant this.
Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to philosophy of the film, which we won't explore in depth here. Dan Clipca from Dartmouth College wrote an excellent paper relating the movie to Taoism amount other things. One great quote here from Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu that the Stalker paraphrases: When a man is more he is soft and pliable. When he dies, he is strong and hard. When a tree grows, it is soft and pliable. But when it is dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death's companions. Flexibility and softness are the embodiment of life. That which has become hard shall not triumph.
But what is the movie telling us about the meaning of life? The Zone in a sense, and the journey into the Zone can be looked at as the quest for the meaning of life. Most of us dare not enter for fear of never returning or for fear of what lies beyond our safety Zone. Those that do enter chase meaning in all the wrong places—what we secretly desire doesn't always lead to happiness, what leads to happiness doesn't always give life meaning (think of the Stalker's wife and her quote at the end of the movie about struggle giving life value). Also, those that dare enter the Zone do so only with the aid of a guru or a guide—but who taught the guide, who told the guru the Zone contained a Room with mystical abilities to grant one's innermost desires? Another guide, another guru. So, we all follow blindly, yield to superstition even if we are unbelievers. Meaning, happiness, and desires don't always go hand in hand; and when we get what we want, it is usually never enough.
Recall the Writer's conversation with the Professor—where did all the Professor's logic and reason get him?
Writer: At any rate, all your technology ... all those blast furnaces, wheels ... and such like hustle and bustle so that people can work less and consume more ... they're all crutches, artificial limbs. Mankind exists in order to ... to create works of art. At least that's unselfish compared with all other human activities. Great illusions. Images of absolute truth. Are you listening to me, Professor?
Professor: What unselfishness are you talking about? People keep dying of hunger. Have you been living on the moon?
Writer: And this is our intellectual aristocracy. You're unable to think in abstract terms.
Professor: Why don't you teach me the meaning of life ... and, at the same time, how to think.
Writer: It's useless. You may be a professor, but you're ignorant.
What we see here is the Writer arguing that humankind exists in order to great works of art (how convenient a writer would consider his own profession as the sole reason for being), while the Professor rebukes the idea. How can that be the meaning of life when people are starving? Later, the Stalker would chime in:
Stalker: You were talking about the meaning of our life ... the unselfishness of art. Now, take music. It's connected least of all with reality. Or, if connected, then it's without ideas. It's merely empty sound with associations. Nevertheless, music miraculously penetrates your very soul. What chord in us responds to its harmonies ... transforming it into a source of delight, uniting us and shattering us? Why is all this necessary? And, above all, for whom? You'll reply, 'For no one and no reason.' No. I doubt that. For everything in the final reckoning has a meaning. A meaning and a reason.
The Stalker here discusses how music seams to transcend reality and argues that everything has a meaning and a reason in the end. Outside of the Zone, the Stalker feels imprisoned, not only physically, but mentally. He hints at the authorities jailing him years ago, but he also feels trapped by his family and responsibilities at home. His wife begs him to take a real job, but he yearns only for the freedom and sense of adventure he gets in the Zone. We can't all be successful writers, and sometimes what we want to do doesn't pay the bills. As a result, his family lives in poverty. But in his final reckoning he takes his family to live in the Zone.
Interestingly, the Professor who secretly brought a bomb into the Zone, intent on destroying what couldn't be explained by science, intent on giving his life some meaning, some notoriety that he otherwise believed he couldn't obtain in regular life, eventually gives in—coming to the conclusion that destroying the one thing that still gave people hope when all else was lost would neither give his life meaning, nor save humanity in case the Room fell into the wrong hands. That is, there was neither a logical reason to do what out he originally set out to accomplish, nor did it make logical sense (as a scientist) to enter the room.
In the end, no one enters the room as no one had a reason too.
Of course, others over the years others have analyzed the film in much more detail. After all, the movie did earn a spot in the top 50 greatest films of all time according to the British Film Institute.
The film is visually stunning—a hauntingly beautiful dystopia which mirrors the real world—a world created by out-of-control industrialism and consumption. We loved it. A perfect 30 on our rating scale.
Overall - 10
Meaning of Life Relevance - 10
Uniqueness – 10
Did you see the movie? What did you think? What did we miss?