"I'm going to watch a three hour Russian film classic," I told anyone who asked last weekend, and a few people who didn't. Luckily, Stalker is one of those long films that justifies its own length--and watching it in two sessions didn't hurt. If the running time intimidates you, I'd highly recommend breaking it up into smaller chunks in order to watch it--it's conveniently broken into Parts 1 and 2 for just such an approach.
Like the game of the same title, Stalker is very loosely based on a science fiction story named "Roadside Picnic." It's set in and around the Zone, a dangerous, trap-filled area created through mysterious means. Three men--the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor--enter the Zone in search of a room that supposedly grants wishes. The Stalker is their guide through this territory, and requires them to step through an elaborate series of pathes and tests on the way.
Although it's a high-concept sci-fi film, there are basically no special effects or technological machines in Stalker. It's shot in fields, abandoned buildings, and underground tunnels, and through dialog and character actions these locations are transformed into something unsettling and claustrophobic (although it should be noted that the production involved a chemical plant that probably led to fatal cancer for several cast members). The Zone is used as a hook for the character to expound on their philosophies, their plans, and what they hope to get out of the room at the end of their journey.
This makes the film very "Russian" to my mind, but it's well-written. And the cinematography is exquisite. Director Andrei Tarkovsky, who also directed the original adaptation of Solaris, indulges in slow zooms and long takes that would be excruciating if the images themselves--either in vibrant color or shimmering, gold-tinted black and white--were not so beautiful. I am not an analog film fanatic, but if I were so inclined, this would possibly be the film to convert me.