If a filmmaker sat down in a producer’s office and rambled on about prehistoric ape battles, Mayan/Judeo-Christian theology, homicidal computers, oncology miracles, cosmic fetuses, and Heaven-bound bubble spaceships, he’d probably be shown the door with directions to one of Hollywood’s many rehab centers. Yet “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Fountain” seem to embrace new narrative techniques that allow them to mix-match elements heretofore unseen in films. Both are pioneers in science-fiction, turning the genre on its head and seeing what comes out. Both also faced heavy criticism upon their release, with “2001” obviously having an edge of 39 years to be appreciated. On top of critics, the characters of both “2001” and “The Fountain” encounter faceless, automated, merciless antagonists: a robot and death.
Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” follows one man through three times. In the past, Thomas Creo, a conquistador, is sent by the Queen of Spain to find the fabled Tree of Life in an attempt to save the Queen from death at the hands of the zealot The Inquisitor. In the present, Tommy Creo struggles to use a strange substance derived from a South American tree to cure his dying wife’s cancer. In the future, a bald Tommy travels in a bubble through space in order to take a gigantic tree holding the fading soul of his dead wife to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld which exists as a dying star surrounded by a nebula. As the film cuts between each period, it’s important to realize the present is the heart of this film. As Tommy faces his wife’s deteriorating condition, he begins hiding his own fear of death in his fear of losing her. The other time periods mirror Tommy’s dilemma of becoming so fearful of death that he neglects his dying wife emotionally as he tries to conquer mortality. Aronofsky delivers some extraordinary visuals and directing here; there’s not a single scene in the movie that’s aesthetically uninteresting. This, while juggling multiple storylines and metaphors which organically reveal the film’s main point, which is not at all as epic and mystical as it first may seem. The film is really about the arrogance of denying death and eventually accepting one’s own death while mourning the death of loved ones. With a visually explosive climax scored to near perfection by Clint Mansell, “The Fountain” is a soft love story teasing big philosophical concepts with a lot of understated emotion.
The Defending Champion
Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is considered by many to be one of sci-fi’s most influential films. The film also takes place in three time periods. The first is the prehistoric ages, where packs of apes learn to use tools (to kill each other, naturally) after the arrival of a strange black monolith. The second is 2001, where the discovery of a black monolith on the Moon prompts a space voyage to Jupiter, during which astronaut Dave Bowman must face the deadly on-board computer HAL. The last is…beyond time, where Bowman exists beyond normal space and emerges as a embryonic star of sorts. Groundbreaking for its time in visuals and narrative, 2001 really looks down at being about any one thing. The highest tension results from Dave Bowman’s confrontations with HAL, his spacecraft’s computer which eventually attempts to kill Dave. Attempting to explain what 2001 is about is pointless. For the past four decades websites, books, and classes have all tried to decipher its meaning. Kubrick himself stated that he didn’t want to confine audiences to a pre-planned blueprint. Suffice it to say, “2001” is visually and philosophically engaging, raising questions such a man’s reliance on technology, his belief in God, and his evolution from ape to human.
Some movies are too coy for their own good. Both “The Fountain” and “2001” play with audience expectations, leaving them to wade through multiple symbols, visuals, and metaphors to infer meaning from their films. While Kubrick is completely comfortable leaving audiences here, Aronofsky hedges away from utter ambiguity and gives his audience a love story which anchors the theme of mortality which “The Fountain” explores. On one level, Kubrick could be said to be braver. But audiences rarely have time to consider bravery while watching a film, nor should they have to. “2001” introduces a great many elements, some amazing themes, but fails to give a uniting anchor through which to experience them. Dave Bowman is the nearest thing approaching a main character, but his journey reinforces the mystery of “2001” whereas Tommy’s journey in “The Fountain” reveals the film’s mystery. Simply look at the film’s climactic moments. In “2001,” Dave Bowman travels through a Light-Bright tunnel, exists beyond time in a French aristocratic room of luxury, dies, and orbits the Earth as a fetus. In “The Fountain,” Tom arrives at the nebulous Mayan underworld too late to save his wife’s soul. Nevertheless, he hovers before the dying star at the heart of Xibalba and resigns himself to death just as it explodes. Now, whether or not “The Fountain”‘s climax is real or a figment of Tommy’s quest to finish his dead wife’s book, is irrelevant to the climax’s emotional point: Tommy accepts his death. Some may say that “2001” doesn’t require this, that it’s above it. But the argument can be made that there’s more creativity and entertainment in a film that respects conventions that have come before while breathing new life into them. There’s a difference between turning things on their head and decapitating those same things . While both can be appreciated for their efforts, only one film’s going to emerge as a more whole and concise piece ready to enlighten while entertaining…
And the winner…
“2001: Space Odyssey” pioneered a new take on sci-fi films as a whole, discarding any previous narrative models and simply focusing on allegory and symbolism. However, it forgot characters. “The Fountain” may not develop Tommy and his wife, but it does provide the character with an internal struggle that focuses the fantastic elements toward the film’s thematic point. Thus whereas “2001” is a visual panorama handled by multiple symbols, “The Fountain” is a visual landscape serving to answer its character’s journey. “2001: Space Odyssey” is drowned out by “The Fountain.”