Into the Zone: Stalker and a brief history of Russian sci-fi

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Jul 19, 2017

This week sees the release on Blu-ray (via the esteemed Criterion Collection) of Stalker, the 1979 science fiction epic by legendary Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Like Tarkovsky's previous entry in the genre, 1972's masterful Solaris, Stalker was based on a published novel -- in this case Roadside Picnic by acclaimed Russian sci-fi authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky -- and represented a pinnacle in both the film and literature of the genre created in that nation.

Science fiction and fantasy have been part of Russian literature since the 19th century, with their expansion into cinema coming as early as the silent era. Strangely enough, the genre boomed during the oppressive years of the Soviet Union, with some of the works that were published or filmed bearing the distinct stamp of Soviet ideology while others pushed back (subtly) against it.

Russian "fantastika" in literature

The Russian term "fantastika" (that's an English translation that loosely means "speculative fiction") covers all the genres -- fantasy, sci-fi, horror and related -- without necessarily putting up distinct borders between them. Early examples stretch back to the 1700s, but the genre really started to take a distinct shape in the 1800s. Among the writers who published seminal works during this time were Prussian fantasy and Gothic horror writer E.T.A. Hoffman and Nikolai Gogol, whose 1835 story Viy (filmed in 1967 and 2014) was a frightening tale of witchcraft and demonic infestation. At the same time, writers like Alexander Veltman were publishing novels like Year 3448, about a time traveler who journeys to the 35th century. Veltman's other books, which often dealt with "fantastika" themes and stories, made him a pioneer of Russian sci-fi.

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, realism was predominant in Russian literature, but ironically science fiction had its "Golden Age" during the Soviet Union era. Despite heavy state censorship, the genre thrived perhaps because of its ability to comment on the modern world through the guise of fantastical storytelling about future or alien civilizations. Massive changes in industry, science and society also precipitated a rapid growth in the genre. At first many of the stories raged against capitalism, but as the iron grip of the Soviets grew tighter, an anti-Communist bent crept into the writing.

Famous books and authors from the era included Alexey N. Tolstoy and his enormously popular Aelita (1923), sort of a Russian version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, in which a Russian scientist and soldier travel to Mars and find an advanced but corrupt civilization. Tolstoy also wrote The Garin Death Ray (1927), about a mad scientist who aims to control Earth with a powerful new weapon. One author who broke away from technology and space travel was Mikhail Bulgakov, who used sci-fi as social satire and as a result saw his books -- including the classic Heart of a Dog (1925) -- all but banned and circulated underground until they were officially published in the 1980s.

The Stalin years, from the 1930s to the 1950s, were bad ones for sci-fi, as censorship was at its most repressive. But once Khrushchev took power in the early '50s, the rules against free expression began to loosen and the genre entered its most fruitful period yet. While there were novels that showed the Earth of the far future to be a Communist paradise -- thanks to the government looking over some authors' shoulders -- other writers set their tales on other worlds as disguised protests against the Soviet regime.

The most well-known and enduring writers to emerge from this era were two brothers, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, whose often dark novels featured a healthy dose of social satire and criticism nestled within their mind-bending concepts. The Strugatskys have had a lasting impact to this day, with books such as Hard to Be a God (1964) and Prisoners of Power (1969) -- part of the "Noon Universe" cycle -- and the sci-fantasy trilogy Monday Begins on Saturday (1964) taking direct aim at Communist ideology and Soviet bureaucracy. But it was Roadside Picnic (1971) that remains arguably their best-known novel outside their native country and was the basis for Stalker.

The end of the Soviet era and state censorship in the late 1980s led to a vast influx of Western books and movies, as well as more homegrown genre writing, with sci-fi and horror still popular in Russia and other former U.S.S.R. nations like Ukraine (some of the best-known and most vital genre work has come out of the latter country). There are now simply too many authors to discuss in this space, but names like Alexey Pekhov (Mockingbird), Sergey Lukyanenko (Night Watch), Vadim Panov (Secret City), Sergey Malitsky (The Outlander's Mission), Alexander Zorich (the Tomorrow War series) and Vadim Panov (Hermeticon) all stand out in both the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Russian "fantastika" film

While there were hundreds of films produced in what was known as the Russian Empire in the early part of the 20th century, it's unclear how many of those delved into the genres of science fiction, fantasy or horror (most of them are now likely lost in any case). With the ascent of the Soviet Union, however, a new expanded era of Russian filmmaking began, and the first major science fiction film produced under the Soviet regime was 1924's Aelita: Queen of Mars, an adaptation of the classic novel published the year before.

Loosely adapted from the novel, Aelita (which was titled Aelita: Revolt of the Robots when released in the U.S. in 1929) turned its sci-fi elements into more of a "it was all a dream" scenario, but it featured striking set designs and imagery that would have an influence on later Western properties like Metropolis and Flash Gordon. Aelita (which was remade in 1981) was directed by Yakov Protazanov, considered one of the founding fathers of Russian cinema.

One of the pioneers of Russian sci-fi cinema was Pavel Klushantsev, also considered one of the world's first purveyors of films set in space. Klushantsev's first truly visionary film was 1957's Road to the Stars, for which he conceived all the special effects himself while also directing -- something he did on many of his movies. Road to the Stars contained scenes of space travel, life on a space station and the colonization of the moon -- some four years before the U.S.S.R. put a man in space.

Klushantsev also directed 1962's Planeta Bur (Planet of the Storms), which had such well-realized space and planet scenes that the film was imported into the U.S. and cannibalized by Roger Corman -- who used the footage (mixed with newly shot American scenes) for not one but two movies: 1965's Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (directed by Curtis Harrington) and 1968's Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (directed by Peter Bogdanovich). This wasn't the first time Corman had pulled such a stunt: He had young director Francis Ford Coppola re-edit the 1959 Russian film Nebo Zovyot (The Sky Beckons) into Battle Beyond the Sun, released in 1962.

One of the most frequently adapted Russian sci-fi authors was Kir Bulychev, whose books Per Aspera Ad Astra (1981), Guest From the Future (1985), Two Tickets to India (1985), The Pass (1988) and The Witches Cave (1990) were all made into films. Other notable sci-fi pictures made during the Soviet era included Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979), Hard to Be a God (1989), The Garin Death Ray (1965 and 1973), Amphibian Man (1962), The Andromeda Nebula (1967) and Heart of a Dog (1988).

And then there was Andrei Tarkovsky, who created perhaps the two most enduring examples of Russian sci-fi cinema at its most artistic and cerebral: Solaris (1972) and Stalker. Solaris was based on the 1961 novel by Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem and is widely considered one of the genre's greatest films. The story of the discovery of a sentient planet and the effect it has on the scientists sent to study it, Solaris was a slow-moving, deeply philosophical and highly complex meditation on grief, loss, memory and humanity's inability to communicate. Tarkovsky reportedly set out to elevate the genre and succeeded, although modern audiences may find Solaris a tough sit (they can try Steven Soderbergh's valid and respectful take on the same material from 2002).

Seven years later, Tarkovsky directed Stalker, based on the novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. While Lem had been displeased with Tarkovsky's adaptation of his work, the Strugatskys wrote the screenplay for Stalker themselves. The film tells the story of a mysterious "Zone" that appears in the middle of a city of the future and that seems to be of alien origin. No one can deduce the purpose of the Zone, but inside the laws of reality do not apply and people who have entered it have vanished. A man known as a stalker -- who knows how to navigate the Zone -- is hired to guide a writer and professor who wish to find the alleged "Room" at the center of the Zone that grants the innermost desires of the person who enters it.

Tarkovsky encountered many problems shooting the film, including losing a year's worth of footage that was developed improperly and ruined, and almost didn't complete it. But the finished Stalker -- while paced slowly and subtitled like Solaris, with the focus on ideas and philosophy instead of visual effects -- is a surreal masterpiece. The early scenes, before the nameless characters enter the Zone, are all shot in a deep brown sepia tone that almost indicated a world slowly draining of life; it is once they're inside the Zone that the film goes to full color.

It's pointless to try and pin down the exact nature of the Zone or its meaning; Tarkovsky was not interested in that but instead wanted to explore ideas about human consciousness and finding the meaning in one's life. Like all great sci-fi, it's the concepts and themes that matter in Stalker, not the visuals (although the visuals in this film are beautiful, mysterious and painterly).

Today

Sci-fi and its related genres have remained popular in Russia in the years since the end of the Soviet Union, although the rising costs of filmmaking have led to a slowdown in the amount of genre films produced. Perhaps the best-known Russian films of the 2000s are the Night Watch series, based on the books by Sergey Lukyanenko and directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who has since directed movies like Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for Hollywood studios.

Other movies have continued to mine the catalog of the Strugatsky brothers for material, including The Inhabited Island (2008) and a second try in 2013 at Hard to Be a God. Original movies have finally started to see a renaissance as well, with titles like We Are From the Future, Hardcore Henry, Attraction and the superhero team movie Guardians all emanating from Russia in recent years.

We may never see the likes of Stalker again from Russian filmmakers as Western influences -- and the desire to get the films released in the West -- continue to creep into the country's cinematic output. But Russia's place in both the pantheon of sci-fi literature and film will be secure -- until one of the many futures it predicted comes true, at least.

Stalker is out now on Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection.