Roadside Picnic, Stalker, and loved it so much I watched it four times before I could bring myself to send it back to Netflix.** And it turns out that I love the source material just as much, which doesn't always happen with books-adapted-to-films. But then again, this is Tarkovsky doing the adapting.
The film is a stripped down version of the book, its trio of main characters deeply abstracted and Tarkovskified from the cast of Roadside Picnic, partly due to the constraints under which the director was working -- hence the low-fi part of the sci-fi, i.e. nothing near the special effects budget that would be required to render all of the alien artifacts and gadgetry the novel's characters encounter -- and partly because Tarkovsky, as always, had his own things going on. Like creating breathtaking underwater Cornell boxes while contemplating the bitter hilarity of our mortal existence:
But what's this all about, you're probably asking?
Roadside Picnic and its adaptation concern the aftermath of an alien stopover on Earth by beings so incomprehensibly different and presumably advanced that they might not even have realized (or cared) that this planet was inhabited by at least one species that presumes itself sentient. Like careless travelers stopping for a picnic lunch, the aliens left behind a fair amount of crap, to which we humans are drawn as ants are to the wrappers and napkins and food scraps human picnickers might leave.
But what crap it is, glorious and dangerous and mysterious and powerful and did I mention dangerous? As are the Zones themselves that were visited and contain the Alien Crap (a list of which can be perused over at Wikipedia but ware spoilers!), in which the laws of physics, life and death, etc. are profoundly different from those prevailing in the good old ordinary universe as we know it and may also change from time to time.
So of course humanity is studying it (carefully) at very high levels and of course at lower levels there is a black market in Alien Crap and in unauthorized trips to the Zones to acquire more Alien Crap and also to exploit some of its properties like the Golden Sphere (which in Tarkovsky's film is changed into a Room), which grants wishes! Hence the existence of folk like our main character (and the title character of the film), Red, who is a Stalker -- a guide into and smuggler out of the Zones, who starts off his career as an unskilled research assistant, takes up a line in Stalking to make a little beer money, and then, when he gets his girlfriend pregnant, realizes he's got to keep breaking the law to keep his new family in groceries.
So even though the novel has a lot more gee-whiz sci fi elements than the film did, it's still a bottom-up view of a world transformed by an alien visit; Red is a working stiff, not an eminent scientist or astronaut, something which critics have made much of when writing about this book over the years; this book, of course, predates the "high tech/low life" scenarios to which cyberpunk and its spawn have long accustomed us. But just as we never get tired of working stiff stories in other genres, there's still plenty of room for working stiff sci-fi, especially when it's this good.
Roadside Picnic manages to be a slightly farcical (in that dry, dark and Russian way) quest narrative, a meditation on how small and insignificant we very probably are in the universe, a family drama and a cautionary tale. With Alien Crap.
In other words, it's completely wonderful.
But what really keeps it intriguing is the novel-world's central mystery: is there an overall, coherent, logical system behind all the Alien Crap and how it works, as in did the Brothers Strugatsky plan it all out and develop it as a complete puzzle for us to solve -- one with a solution -- or is it just a whole bunch of weird phenomena that they thought would be cool and just brainstormed one night over, say, some mushroom tea a la Babylen and Andrei in the fantastic Generation P (an adaptation of some more amazing Russian science fiction, my beloved Victor Pelevin's Homo Zapiens, and which film contains more than a few visual and narrative homages to Stalker. It's fly agaric all the way down, yo.)? Which might mean it's still weirdly meaningful, but not in a systematic way that one can tease out with mere reason... an exercise all the Alien Crap and Zone Traps which Roadside Picnic offers pretty much irresistibly invites the reader to try.
The film, of course, has other things with which to bake one's noodle, big philosophical and religious questions without which a Tarkovsky film would not be a Tarkovsky film, as well as long, slow, meditative and dreamlike scenes like this travel sequence:
This sequence should be required viewing for anyone who thinks he or she could pull some lo-fi sci fi cinema. It's just three guys sitting on a railroad car watching the scenery go by, but Eduard Artemiev's perfect musical accompaniment (which I played on a loop for a while during my reading of Roadside Picnic) and the transition from gritty industrial sepia-toned film stock to full color film*** and a lush green landscape**** makes Tarkovsky's Zone feel just as strange as the Strugatsky's but in a completely different way.
Wonderful as Stalker is, though, now that I've read the novel from which the film is abstracted, I kind of wish Tarkovsky used more of the source material, not so much the Alien Crap as the novel's social dimensions: the novel takes us inside the Institute which studies the Alien Crap and has a lot to say about the difficulties being encountered in figuring out how it works, why it works, what some of it might be for; it also spends some time with what must surely be the organization behind the Professor's mad scheme in the film, with those who oppose the exploitation of the Zones and regard them and their products as EVIL. Too, a movement within the Institute charged with policing and shutting down the Stalkers introduces a huge friendship and betrayal plot/theme that adds layers of intrigue to the novel (but also, sadly, winds up not being resolved within its text). But all that would require a different filmmaker altogether to develop. Richard Linklater, say.
It's hard, too, to read this book now without perceiving a lot of Soviet themes and thinking, spotting allegories about the dangers of Western-style materialism, for instance, as well as a certain environmental/pollution-themed cautionary tale. Careless aliens made whole swathes of our planet uninhabitable and hostile. Careless people have the same effect on other species' habitats. Species have evolved that are entirely dependent on our artificial impacts; in Roadside Picnic, we are in danger of adapting irrevocably to the impact of the Visit. Which, for all the novel's cast knows, might just be the whole point!
Oh, so much to think about, when we think about The Other...
*This to my shame, because I do consider myself a fan of Tarkovsky. But I'm a fan of a lot of things, and it takes time to get to them all!
**And no, this was not just so I could keep looking at Anatoliy Solonytsin. No, really!
***This is probably due to another one of the famous Soviet austerity/resource choking constraints that left directors like Tarkovsky having to work with little bits of lots of different kinds of film rather than a deliberate choice to do some Wizard of Oz-ish gimmicky contrast, I'm pretty sure. But that's Tarkovsky, making lemonade. But, you know, the lemonade might transform your digestive tract and eventually your whole body into more lemonade if you drink it.
****And the whole theme of a gorgeous natural landscape transformed into something still beautiful but deadly as hell strongly prefigures/predicts what would become of the environs of Chernobyl as you can observe in Michelle Boganin's 2011 Stalker-esque tour of Terre Outragee.