The idea of people pushed to their limits serves as the bedrock for countless works of art, from revenge tragedies to superhero blockbusters. But the idea that someone can learn the most about themselves in extreme circumstances is itself pushed to the limits in two films celebrating their 40th anniversaries this year. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker have surface-level differences, but the films are two sides of the same coin, both exploring what happens when people reach out to touch the abyss and the abyss touches back. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the novella used as the skeleton for Coppola’s war epic, best describes where these films go: “a heart of immense darkness.”
Apocalypse Now and Stalker share a narrative trajectory. They take their protagonists on journeys to places that seem to exist at the fringes of humanity and human experience, places that are removed from the world as it is, imbued with a certain kind of strange energy. This is most explicit in Stalker, wherein the title character (a guide of sorts) leads two men, a Scientist and a Writer, to The Zone. The Zone is heavily guarded by the government; allegedly, it is inhabited by aliens, and there’s a magic place there, The Room, which grants the deepest wish of anyone who makes it there.
The final moments of Stalker reveal that everything said about The Zone is true. One’s inner-most wishes are granted there, but the nature of these wishes often reveals self-deception. The Stalker tells a story about someone who made it The Room and wished to resurrect his brother, who had died on the journey there. But that wish wasn’t granted — instead, the man received a large sum of money. Shortly afterward, he committed suicide.
This is the darkness that lies at the heart of The Zone: You get what you actually want, not what you think you want. The wish that’s granted could reveal a truth that you’d rather keep hidden, that completely changes how you see yourself, sometimes making it impossible to go on.
While this story and the potential misuse of the power of The Room might paint Stalker as a pessimistic film, the title character’s constant desire to take people to The Zone and see wishes granted reveals the optimism at the film’s heart. The Stalker is constantly asking for the best in humankind, hoping that every time will be different, that the inherent goodness he sees in people will come through in the wishes granted by The Room. Although the Stalker sees the purpose of his existence as being a continued odyssey to and from the heart of darkness, he hopes that every journey is punctuated by light.
On the opposite end of this spectrum is Apocalypse Now, a film of operatic grandeur, using everything from Wagner and T.S. Eliot to The Doors to wring every ounce of emotion from the events on screen. Like the Stalker, Captain Benjamin Willard, the protagonist and “hero” of Apocalypse Now, finds himself going off the edge of the map on his search for the renegade Colonel Kurtz. This journey is punctuated by the realities of war, including the famous declaration of “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” but to Coppola, it seems that the real darkness doesn’t come from war but from the soul of humanity.
Colonel Kurtz sees himself as some kind of deity. In the place he’s claimed as his own he’s surrounded by people who hang on his every word, which transforms not only Kurtz himself but the way he sees the world. His monologue on horror argues that “you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared.” Throughout this speech, Kurtz is mostly covered in darkness, his face occasionally illuminated. This idea of making a friend of horror is clearly informed by the heart of darkness where Kurtz finds himself, the spiritual evil that seems to have infected him. There’s also something of the abyss in Willard, something that’s drawn out at the film’s climax.
The final sequence of Apocalypse Now is among the most infamous in cinema, featuring the slaughter of an animal. This feels fitting for a film that is in love with the abyss, a film the takes the idea of the horror of war and uses it to reflect a kind of spiritual corruption. That’s where Apocalypse Now most clearly differs with Stalker: Here there is nobody hoping that the better angels of humanity will win the day. It’s no wonder that the final words of the film are an echo of Kurtz’s last words: “The horror, the horror.”
The place where Kurtz dies, where Willard leaves him in the film’s final moments, is defined by madness and death; the ghost of Kurtz is impossible to escape. As the echo of the horror repeats, an almost ghostly version of Willard is superimposed onto the screen, words and image coming together to reveal that Willard himself has now been touched by the hand of the abyss.
Both Stalker and Apocalypse Now take their characters to dark places, physically and psychologically. The two films are counterpoints of light and darkness. Taken together, they reveal the good and evil that the filmmakers see as inherent to people, the different responses that someone can have when they’re taken to the very limits of the human experience.