In movies one always feels the constant pull of time. Books can be read at different paces, skipping sections or reading them again, but movies, like life, march us inexorably forward. Existing eternally in the present moment, movies approximate our own experience with time. Yet they also provide us the ability to bend and dissect it, revisiting the past or taking a glimpse at the future, whether in the sliced up non-linear narratives of Quentin Tarantino or in era-hopping time-travel films like Back to the Future. This week, two new films — Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain — deploy a smorgasbord of slick cinematic pyrotechnics in their attempts to reconcile the problems of human interaction with time. And in doing so, both films reveal that our true obsession isn’t with the ticking of the clock, but with the mortality to which it inevitably leads.
Déjà Vu is the latest candy-colored popcorn flick from director Tony Scott and megaproducer Jerry Bruckheimer. Yes, it’s the same pair of Hollywood heavyweights who brought us such dizzying big-screen spectacles as Top Gun and Enemy of the State. As is typical for Scott, it’s a silly, shallow project thinly garbed in pretensions of importance. Scott has always trafficked in high-gloss juvenilia, whether in The Hunger, which reimagined vampires as chic, lovelorn elites, or the outsized vigilante violence of True Romance and Man on Fire.
Like those films, Déjà Vu would like its audiences to think it’s more than just another blockbuster, and it alternately poses as a smart sci-fi thriller and an emotionally resonant romance. Mostly, however, it’s just a pleasantly dumb action thriller. Denzel Washington, as charismatic and appealing as ever, stars as Doug Carlin, an ATF agent called in to investigate a tragic New Orleans ferry-bombing. He quickly begins to suspect the key to the crime is tied up with the murder of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), a belief that gets him drafted into a secret surveillance unit run by an FBI agent (Val Kilmer, who, now in his late 40s, is beginning to show some wear and tear). Once there, Carlin discovers an experimental program that can see into, and possibly manipulate, the recent past — four and a half days, to be exact. This leads him to attempt to not only solve the bombing, but to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Time is important, but mostly because of its connection with death.
With Top Gun and Days of Thunder, Scott helped define many of the conventions of modern commercial filmmaking: rapid-fire editing, blistering soundtracks, varied film stocks, hyperreal lighting. His films are generally populist in tone, but they’re also rather risky stylistic experiments, and his most recent films pushed things even further. Déjà Vu carries all the hallmarks of a Scott film — manic editing, juiced-up photography, a thunderous, moody soundtrack — but the director has definitely throttled back since the tweaked-out excess of last year’s Domino. Instead of drowning his audience in panic-inducing stylistics, Scott seems content merely to toy with his film’s past-is-catching-up concept. His old films seemed designed to cause motion sickness; this one just feels like jet lag.
The dumb-smart high concept eventually gives way to merely dumb action, but, for much of the running time, it gives the characters plenty of room to debate the theoretical possibilities of time travel, parallel universes, and human choice. Those with a scientific bent might want to bone up on string theory before the movie. Several delightfully staged sequences in the middle resemble the dorm-room bull sessions in which my college cohort and I used to attempt to attempt solve the various problems of predestination and free will. The movie is about as successful at solving this dilemma as we were (which is to say, not very), but it’s just as fun.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, on the other hand, is a far more somber film than Scott’s, and it at least attempts to be more sophisticated. Aronofsky, an indie film whiz with a penchant for blending twitchy electronic music and percussive editing, is clearly a cinematic descendent of Scott’s. In both Pi and Requiem for a Dream, he brilliantly expanded on many of Scott’s stylistic innovations, using them to tackle complicated questions about the nature of reality.
Now he’s at it again with a multi-era tale of true love and everlasting life that blends science with mysticism. Déjà Vu examines the passage of time on a micro level, but The Fountain treats it on a macro scale, shifting between three connected stories in the present day, the far future, and the ancient Mayan past. Each of the stories stars Hugh Jackman as, respectively, a Spanish explorer, a medical researcher, and a bald-headed astronaut. Rachel Weisz also shows up in multiple roles as a queen, a wife dying of cancer, and a ghostly spirit presence. The parts vary, but each is someone who inspires great devotion from Jackman.
Ostensibly, the movie is about the search for eternal life over a vast expanse of time. But how the stories play out and how they’re connected isn’t really important, nor is it entirely clear. Instead, the film is primarily an experiment with sound and image, an emotionally emphatic visual exploration of space and time, life and death, and the connections between them. By tackling such dense fare, Aronofsky wants us to see that he’s devotee of both written science fiction and sci-fi cinema. But he’s not content to simply draw a line between visually driven sci-fi films and their headier written counterparts. No, The Fountain wants to leapfrog science-fiction prose entirely and invent something new: sci-fi poetry.
He almost succeeds. Some of what flashes by on screen, especially in the future sequences, is truly astounding, but there’s too much emphasis on splendor and not enough on story. Aronofsky seems to have some intriguing notions — far more complicated than those in Déjà Vu — about how time ceases to matter when one no longer faces the threat of death. But he’s too wrapped up in circle-of-life mysticism to fully develop them, and, as such, too much of the film plays like a dopey sci-fi Lion King. For all its blockbuster clichés and gestures toward grander meaning, Déjà Vu never really takes itself seriously, and comes off better for it. The Fountain, on the other hand, can’t pick between heart and smarts. In the end, you’ll be less likely to ponder the nature of time and death than to check your watch and wonder if the movie might actually last an eternity.