Immaterial Traces of Ethical Obligation in Sci-Fi Films

Travis Anderson, professor of philosophy, explores the extent of human obligation in the context of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

PROVO, Utah (Jan. 16, 2018)—At its very best, science fiction is a genre that broadens our understanding of political institutions and the depths of human relationships through a fantastical lens. Even at its worst, the genre can at least provide striking or creative visuals and stories. What sets apart the best sci-fi films are those that are able to exploit all the rich resources available to the cinematic arts in order to integrate futuristic or fantastic ideas with keen insights into human nature, and thereby create gripping, layered narratives that challenge both the eyes and the mind.

One such example is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a 1979 Soviet sci-fi exploration of man’s innermost desires and the subject of philosophy professor Travis Anderson’s recent lecture at BYU’s International Cinema.

Anderson, as well as most film critics and lovers of international film, lists Tarkovsky as one of the greatest directors of all time. Born, raised, and trained in the former Soviet Union, Tarkovsky was known for his unconventional style and penchant for spiritual themes.

Stalker is a worthy science fiction film, but this is also a film about religious belief and spirituality,” said Anderson. “This is a film that raises questions about our moral responsibilities to each other in the context of a particular question: What kinds of obligations do we owe ourselves and others if presented with the opportunity . . . to have our greatest desires be realized, but at the potential cost of great personal and family risk?”

Stalker is set in a fictional Soviet Union that is now home to a mysterious region that defies science and understanding as the result of some cataclysmic event or extra-terrestrial visitation. Fraught with danger, the “Zone,” as it is so termed, offers the promises of riches and knowledge but is sealed off by the well-armed forces of the Soviet military, which fears the consequences of infiltrators wishing for something that could be dangerous or politically destabilizing.

Enter the titular stalker, a “spiritual guide” modelled on the classic “holy fool” who offers to sneak adventurers into a particular region of the Zone that is rumored to grant the greatest desires of a person’s heart. These possibilities attract two strangers, one a writer, the other a scientist, who presumably seek the Stalker’s help in fulfilling their greatest desires. But while the journey to their destination is perilous, the greatest danger may lie in truly learning the nature of their deepest desire, because it may not be what they imagine it to be

For Tarkovsky, “[Film is] not a reflection of life as we know it, except to the degree that life itself, at its most essential, is a poetic experience,” said Anderson. “We can make sense of it only after the fact. [Tarkovsky] wants film to be a poetic experience that mirrors that of life itself. So you are going to see images in the film, and hear scripture and poetry recitations, that are exquisitely beautiful, but may not seem to advance the narrative.” Combining symbolic visuals with purposeful shifts between color and sepia tones, Tarkovsky creates a landscape that is equal parts curious and lonely to make what Anderson terms “an impressionistic experience.”

This unique diegetic atmosphere, coupled with Tarkovsky’s flawed yet relatable characters, make Stalker a sci-fi classic that promises to do more than just visually impress.


Eric Baker (News Media, ’18)

Eric Baker covers events for BYU’s International Cinema. He is a senior pursuing a degree in News Media with a minor in Political Science.