God Rendered in Grimdark Technicolor
With an opening that depicts the Jewish tree of life set to brilliant choral music, the science fiction anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which depicts humanity in an existential conflict with invading “angels”, seemingly takes its place in a long literary tradition of Japanese criticism of organized religion. Indeed from the first encounters of Jesuit missionaries with the 16th century shoguns, to the world of the Final Fantasy video game franchise, criticism of Western religion is a consistent theme of Japanese fiction. But despite nam– ing their weekly monsters after archangels such as Sachiel, Sandalphon, and Ramiel, who upon destruction explode into massive cross- shaped clouds, Evangelion has managed to avoid a similar Satanic panic to the one that accompanied the rise of Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s. Upon closer analysis, it becomes clear that despite its the constant use of crosses and Kabbalah, Evangelion’s religious symbolism at its core possesses no Christian themes. Even the show’s assistant director, Kazuya Tsurumaki, said, “None of the staff who worked on Eva are Christians. There is no actual Christian meaning to the show, we just thought the visual symbols of Christianity look cool. If we had known the show would get distributed in the US and Europe we might have rethought that choice.” This saturation of mysticism lays the backdrop for a psychological struggle as the protagonists grapple with the effects of absentee parents and the apocalypse destroying their psyche. The heroes seek to find connection and a bet– ter understanding of themselves while simultaneously stopping the destruction of the world.
I mention Evangelion to propose that if Chris- tian symbolism can exist in the absence of Christian themes, then the inversion must be true. Though raised in the Eastern Orthodox Faith, Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky lacked the ability to play freely with Christian symbol- ism under the restraints of a totalitarian atheist government that promulgated state-enforced atheism. Though Andrei Rublev, the biographi- cal story of an icon painter in early 15th century Russia implemented Christian imagery to the chagrin of Soviet censors who heavily modified the limited cuts of the film viewable in Russia, his final Russian produced film, Stalker, depicts a gripping story of faith, while completely ab- sent of any blatant Christian imagery.
The simplest way to explain Stalker’s two hours and forty minutes is to describe it as a grimdark reflection of the Wizard of Oz. Three unnamed individuals, a professor, a writer, and their guide, the titular Stalker, enter the Zone hoping to realize the former two’s wishes by reaching the center. In a scene that mimics the stunning movement into technicolor as Dorothy comes upon Munchkin land in The Wizard of Oz, the characters begin in a sepia, bombed out Russian industrial town and the film transitions to color after they evade a military blockade and take a small trolley into the Zone, a magical place shot in two deserted Finnish power plants. The military refuses to chase them in- side, themselves scared by the Zone, a location that even the Stalker lacks a full understanding of. Despite immediately seeing their goal in the distance upon entering the zone, the stalk- er cautions them from walking towards it. The Stalker instead has them imitate his longwinded path, carefully determined by throwing small bolts tied to ribbon to test the path. The writer quickly tires of the Stalker’s strange method and begins crossing directly to the room. However, near its threshold a mysterious voice tells him to stop. He walks back to ask the Stalker to explain why he shouted, but in reality, neither the Stalker nor the Professor had said anything.
Indeed, it is left to the audience to choose to believe whether the traps exist, just as its left the truth is ambiguous to the characters. The characters tell us that people have died in the zone and the military presence attests true danger, but despite the temptations of ostentatious science fiction set pieces, the characters run from no spike pits or trash compactors. Rather, they trust the Stalker’s ritual method and continue their tedious advance to the Zone. As the adventure through the deserted landscape continues, Tarkovsky explores the Stalker’s personal ideology, revealing that not even he understands the complete workings of the zone. The Stalker instead takes them as articles of faith from his teacher, Porcupine, a previous Stalker. Porcupine’s story allows the characters to understand the philosophy of the zone that previously evaded the Stalker.
Though Porcupine successfully reached the center of the Zone and entered the room that grants each visitor his wish, Porcupine’s brother died during the journey. Upon leaving the Zone, Porcupine quickly came into great wealth, but killed himself soon after due to the shame of his brother’s death. Upon reaching the Room themselves, the Professor takes a 20 kiloton bomb out of his backpack and reveals that his intention is not to wish for a Nobel prize, but rather to destroy the room to pre- vent its misuse by bad actors. The three begin to fight, as with the Stalker attacking the professor while the writer fends the professor off. In the process, the Stalker realizes that the true purpose of the Zone is to fulfill the deepest wish– es of the most hopeless people. The Stalker final– ly understands Porcupine’s death in the context of the complex rules Porcupine taught him: that Porcupine died because of he entered the room out of a greedy desire to make money instead of out of an altruistic motivation to help others. However, the writer calls accuses him of under- standing the zone in the context of his ritualistic beliefs rather than in truth, claiming that the Porcupine died not because the zone failed him, but because it actually granted his deepest wish. Porcupine in his sadness declared a wish for his brother’s return, but the Room granted his deep- er wish for wealth. This leads the Writer to realize that the Stalker was on some level right that the Room rejects those who seek it from the wrong reasons, leading the professor to abandon with his plot to destroy the Room, recognizing that those with bad intentions cannot take advantage of the room. The writer dresses down the Stalker for his blind faith in the Room, and the three rest on its the Room’s threshold without entering it before the three leave the Zone.
Each character possesses a different understand- ing of the zone. The Professor sees it as an evil to be taken advantage of by bad actors, the Stalker sees it as a Divine force and his only source of hope in the world, while the Writer simply finds it fascinating in a literary sense, not needing to enter the Room to realize his wish to experience new inspiration. Through the journey, each character’s faith evolves, with both the skeptics and the true believer left with a new understanding of the Zone. The atheistic Professor, though not a complete nonbeliever, misanthropically views God as evil, but eventually realizes that It protects itself against the evils of those who seek it for misguided reasons. The Writer, who was initially skeptical of the room’s mere existence, finishes the journey respecting its true existence and its ritual enough to not try to abuse it for personal gain. On the other hand, the Stalker finds his faith shattered. His guide Porcupine had left him with a set of rules that gave him purpose, but those rules are now called into question and adhered to by him alone. Lying in bed sick after returning, the Stalker panickedly tells his wife of the lack of faith of the other two travelers, offended that they can question his source of hope. But when his wife proposes her own journey to the Zone to support her husband’s faith, he quickly rejects the notion in spite of understanding that his wife’s subtle despair would allow her to reach the Room, potentially afraid of that her innermost wish would affect him. At the end, the film finally displays the Zone’s magic, as the Stalker’s daughter casually moves cups on a table us- ing telekinesis, demonstrating that Tarkovsky seeks to pose to the audience questions of about the nature of faith by finally depicting the magic on screen.
Stalker raise substantial questions for the viewer in terms of how faith functions. Each of the three primary characters can be linked to a classical archetype of modern religious discussion in the Christian context, and their arcs err on the side of reaffirming faith in God within that context. The Professor represents the common critic of the vengeful Old Testament God, but here in the film is even fully given the opportunity to kill God. However, his respect for God gets restored by the Writ- er, who represents a more classical skeptic. The writer initially dismisses what others call signs of God in the world as mere coincidence or explainable by natural phenomena, only to gradually accept the story of Porcupine as not a coincidence but rather a miracle, even as he continues to question the ritual of the Room’s true believer, the Stalker. The Stalker’s deeply ritualistic understanding of the Zone gets challenged by his skeptical companions, the Writer and the Professor, which shatters his self-confidence as a guide that leads the wretched to a life-assuring hope. The Professor is not only challenged on his core belief in the Room’s magic, but finds his entire under– standing of hope shattered, his personal crisis left unresolved by the end of the film.
Thus, Stalker provides a story for both believer and non-believer in their relation to faith, with Tarkovsky’s core message erring on an ultimately mystical unknowability of God. However, beyond its endogenous messages, Stalker provides a new way to understand our own interactions between faith and the wide world of fiction. Despite Tarkovsky’s Christianity, in his construction of Stalker, the director purposefully leaves the film devoid of any explicit overtures to Christianity while conveying a very Christian story. Using Stalker as a precedent, we can look to media even more disconnected from Christianity to better understand our faith. In my personal experience, in ways I cannot fully explain, the purely iconoclastic authenticity of punk rock has my faith in God more so than explicitly Christian music. So if Stalker can provide Christian messaging while surviving the censorship of a militant atheist censorship board, perhaps we can deepen our faith from contemplating sources even farther defined from conventional sources of Christian perspective, whether the author intends such an understanding or not. Though generally used in application to science, John Paul II’s maxim that “Truth cannot contradict truth” applies here. In interacting with fiction regardless of the context and even when explicitly atheistic, there exists the potential to find truth and apply it to our faith.