There are several reasons why, in spite of the fact that I don't consider myself to be a fan of either Darren Aronofsky or Richard Linklater (or, for that matter, Philip K. Dick)*, I made the schlep up to Haifa yesterday afternoon to catch festival screenings of their latest films. For one thing, there's the fact that both films had incredibly cool trailers, or the fact that one of them has already been buried by its Israeli distributer and the other is likely to, which means that yesterday was probably my only chance to view these films in a movie theatre (over at his blog, Israeli film critic Yair Raveh has been collating a list of films purchased for distribution in Israel and then forgotten by their distributors. It's a terrifying collection, and includes such embarrassing oversights as Donnie Darko, Garden State, and Hotel Rwanda). But the most important reason for making time to see A Scanner Darkly and The Fountain was powerfully brought home to me only an hour after I'd finished viewing the latter. My friend Hagay, who accompanied me to both films, and a friend of his, tried very earnestly to convince me that neither film--the former of which takes place in the near future and features chameleon suits, omnipresent surveillance, and a drug so powerful that it can permanently distort the user's perception of reality; the latter of which takes place at least in part in the distant future and features a space voyage--aren't science fiction.
Few SF fans will be shocked to discover that the genre's cinematic definition is a great deal more conservative and constrained than its literary equivalent. Science fiction, for movie-goers and -makers, more often than not means spaceships, lasers, aliens, and, most importantly, gunfights. There can and have been some very fine and thoughtful films made within that subset of the genre, but a fan looking for slightly different, more subdued fare will wait a long time between offerings. It was precisely this hunger that brought me to Haifa yesterday, and as it turns out, Scanner and Fountain have more in common than just being atypical instances of a heavily streamlined genre. They both have a unique visual sensibility, are both best appreciated for their emotional ambience and not their plot, and can both be more comfortably described as interesting rather than successful.
Like its protagonist, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover policeman whose pretense of being a drug addict is swiftly becoming a reality, A Scanner Darkly suffers from a split personality. On the one hand, it is a near-future dystopia about a nation at war with itself. In a desperate attempt to curb the proliferation of the dangerous drug Substance D, America has become a police state. Citizens are placed under constant surveillance and dissenters are snatched off the streets by shock troops in unmarked vans. A megacorporation called New Path offers a putative cure for addiction to Substance D, but it whisks its patients away to the one spot in America not under surveillance, and to an unknown fate. When interacting with his fellow policemen, Bob must wear a chameleon suit to hide his identity, with the bleakly humorous result that he is tasked with surveilling himself as a potential drug dealer.
When it moves away from Bob's professional life, A Scanner Darkly becomes an almost plotless study of the character's downward spiral. Along with fellow addicts Barris, Luckman and Freck (Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane) and girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder), Bob performs the standard stoner rituals--sitting around for hours musing about nothing, indulging in paranoid delusions, coming up with insane schemes that go nowhere, and denying that they have a problem. As the film progresses, Bob begins to suffer the effects of prolonged exposure to Substance D. He becomes disassociated from himself, and ultimately loses both of his identities.
Apart from being the first instance in 24 years of a work by Philip K. Dick being adapted into something other than an action film, A Scanner Darkly is probably best known for utilizing a rotoscoping animating technique, in which animation is superimposed over live film**. The effect is nothing short of stunning, and serves to both alienate us from Bob, who is something other than three-dimensionally, naturalistically human, and put us inside his head, in which the familiar has become slightly alien. Although some reviewers have taken the animating process to task for smoothing away the nuances of the actors' expressions, I think the film's overall texture more than makes up for this sacrifice. Of particular note are the chameleon suits worn by Bob and the other policemen, which project a constantly shifting image made up of the body parts of different men, women, and children. Both creepy and beautiful, the chameleon suits are a perfect visual expression of Bob's alienation and his increasing loss of self--by being everybody, he becomes a nobody, cut off from humanity by a thin but impermeable membrane.
Probably the toughest part of adapting A Scanner Darkly to the screen was the need to maintain a balance between tragedy and farce. There's very little that isn't funny--albeit a very dark kind of funny--about the notion of policemen so secret that they unknowingly spy on one other (was Dick reading G.K. Chesterton, I wonder?), and the interactions between Bob and his friends are also nothing short of ridiculous. It is to Linklater's credit, therefore, that he manages to infuse the film with a tragic undertone. We can laugh when Luckman, in the throes of a paranoid fantasy about invaders in his unattended house, asks, "What if they come in through the back door or the bathroom window like that infamous Beatles song?", but we will do so uncomfortably and in the knowledge that what we're actually watching is the criminal waste of minds and, ultimately, lives. Even more impressive than this transition from amusement to disgust, however, is the one that takes place later in the film, when our distaste for the characters turns to pity. The film ends with a coda by Dick, in which he dedicates the work (the book, I assume) to friends of his who were punished all too severely for their mistakes, and we can only nod in sympathy.
Ultimately, however, A Scanner Darkly fails as a tragedy of weakness and self-destruction, and this failure can be directly attributed to the film's dystopian, SFnal half. There's something winningly honest about the wording of Dick's coda, in which he acknowledges that, however terrible and disproportionate their punishment, his fallen friends were the authors of their own fate. Within the story, however, Dick chickens out (I haven't read the book, but from what I understand Linklater's adaptation is quite faithful). The Substance D plague turns out to be the brain-child of a single organization, a relentless and deliberate attack against helpless users, and the film ends with the suggestion that this organization can be defeated, thus freeing humanity from the bane of addiction. It's a facile ending, which traps the film between two emotional modes--too simplistic and upbeat for the naturalistic tragedy of drug abuse we had been watching, but also far too bleak for a feel-good story of good triumphing over evil. The audience is cheated out of their catharsis, and the film, however impressive in its parts, turns out to be unsatisfying as a whole.
It's quite a paradigm shift to go from Linklater's flattened and almost textureless suburban settings to the rich and hyper-detailed visuals of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. The film's interiors--apartments, palaces, offices, museums, tents, dungeons, labs--are carefully arranged, artful even in their messiness. Its exteriors are so heavily textured that even a blanket of snow becomes an assault on the senses. Space itself, in Aronofsky's hands, is crowded with visual stimuli.
As anyone who's seen the film's trailer (and if you have, you know the film's plot and can probably guess at its ending--this isn't a film you watch for the story) knows, The Fountain tells three parallel stories, which take place in the past, the present, and the future. In the early 21st century, a scientist named Tom (Hugh Jackman) battles valiantly to find a cure for the cancer afflicting his beloved wife, Izzy (Rachel Weisz). Izzy is a novelist, whose latest story (titled The Fountain) takes place in 16th century Spain. The reign of Queen Isabella is threatened by a ruthless inquisitor, who pronounces judgments of heresy against the Queen's allies and seizes their land. She dispatches the conquistador Tomas to the jungles of South America, where the dying Mayan civilization is said to conceal the tree of life. In the future, an unnamed man who may or may not be a now immortal Tom, travels with the dying remnants of this tree towards a nebula the Mayans christened Xibalba--the home of the dead, and a source of new life.
There's a great deal of fun to be had in tracking the ways in which the three plotlines loop around and echo each other. The dagger with which Tomas travels towards his destination is echoed in the shape of the quill with which Izzy writes her novel, and the tattoo needle with which the future Tom marks the passage of time on his own skin. When he first meets Isabella, Tomas glimpses her through an intricately patterned screen. A similar pattern appears on the glass door of Izzy's hospital room. The inquisitor notes his conquests of Isabella's land by daubing blood over a map of Spain, recalling all too powerfully the progress of a tumor as it swallows up healthy tissue. The effect of these recurring elements is strongly reminiscent of self-referential, post-modern puzzle novels like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or Simon Ings's The Weight of Numbers, in which the reading experience becomes an active exploration. Aronofsky's use of this technique engourages us to believe that the film's disparate plotlines will eventually come together to form an overpowering, emotional crescendo.
There's no shortage of emotion to be overpowered by in The Fountain. The bulk of the film revolves around Izzy and Tom, but for all that they are our contemporaries, they are not naturalistic characters. Everything about them is operatic and larger than life: Tom's determination to find a cure for Izzy and his fear of losing her, Izzy's ever-increasing luminousness in the face of death, their love for one another. Izzy and Tom, and Isabella and Tomas, and the future Tom and the imaginary Izzy to whom he speaks, aren't characters so much as archetypes--the man the woman, the scientist and the artist, the searcher and the guide. This is the sort of artistic choice one has to be prepared for--to watch The Fountain expecting realistic characterization would make for a disastrous viewing experience--and to Aronofsky's credit he for the most part carries his audience along with him--the film teeters on the brink of overwrought melodrama, but never quite makes the plunge. We buy into the grandeur with which Aronofsky imbues his characters and their plight.
Unfortunately, the promised crescendo never truly materializes. At the risk of sounding flip, I have to point out that Aronofsky expends a terrific amount of energy, and demands an equally terrific emotional commitment from his audience, to express one of the minor themes of the Harry Potter books--that immortality is achieved not through the denial of death but through its acceptance, and through the transformative power of art and creation***. Even worse, he fails to convey this message convincingly. By the end of the film, the intricate interlacing of plotlines begins to unravel. The plot collapses in upon itself, leaving us only with the message. Unsupported by the story's invented cosmology, this message takes on the hue of fortune cookie wisdom--death is the path to immortality, OK, what's for desert? It's obviously unfair to criticize Aronofsky for not making a film which doubles as a spiritual eye-opener (although I'm not entirely convinced that he wasn't aiming for such an effect), but by failing to sustain the audience's emotional investment in his story, Aronofsky misses out on even the ersatz sense of revelation that can be wrought out of a well-told story (or, as I like to put it, I don't believe in Christ but I do believe in Aslan).
As I wrote at the beginning of this entry, neither The Fountain nor A Scanner Darkly are entirely successful works. Each of them, however, fails in interesting ways, and succeeds often enough in individual scenes, in certain images, and in their ability to keep me enthralled, if not entirely satisfied, to make the time and effort I took to see them worthwhile. After a long dry spell with no interesting SF films in sight--hell, no interesting films, period, in sight--yesterday afternoon's double feature made for an almost overpowering glut. If you have the opportunity, I heartily recommend both of these films--an interesting failure is sometime a more worthy object than an uninteresting success.
* Full disclosure: I've seen Aronofsky's Pi and found it ambitious but ultimately a mess. Haven't seen Requiem for a Dream or any of Linklater's films. Of Dick's novels, I've only read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which I liked but not enough to actively seek out more of his work.
** Which, by the way, makes the film a blow against cinematic preconceptions on two fronts--it is both an atypical SF film and an atypical animated film.
*** Yair Raveh's review of the film is in Hebrew, which unfortunately means that most of my readers won't be able to read it, but he very cleverly points out that, in spite of the obvious associations between the film's title and the mythical fountain of eternal life, the actual source of immortality in the film is a tree, not a fountain. Could the title allude, Raveh wonders, to an ink fountain, the means by which Izzy creates her own slice of immortality, the completion of which she leaves to Tom?