The Bottom Shelf

Attack of the Arthouse Sci-Fi Movie

The reviews of Darren Aronofsky’s ponderously goofy sci-fi epic The Fountain generally fell into one of three categories: 1) “What was he thinking?” 2) “What was he smoking?” and 3) “What was the deal with the jizz-spurting tree?” While we at the Bottom Shelf have no answers to these daunting conundrums, we would be remiss in not pointing out that Aronofsky’s spacey oddity is merely the latest exhibit in a grand cinematic tradition dating back to the 1968 release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Obsessive micro-categorization being our raison d'etre, let’s call it arthouse sci-fi.

As with most of our made-up subgenres, we know arthouse sci-fi when we see it. And we usually see it when an eccentric, cerebral and generally well-regarded auteur (viz Mr. Kubrick) decides to dabble in this curious realm of scientific-fiction, not because he is at all fascinated with space battles and funny-looking aliens, but because he sees potential in the genre for a Cinema of Big Ideas. In Kubrick’s case, the happy result of this experimentation was an enduring classic, but not all who followed his lead were so fortunate.

Take, for instance, John Boorman, who made his own grab for sci-fi glory with the 1974 anomaly Zardoz. Boorman approaches the genre as an arena for exploring the mind-bending possibilities of filmmaking — essentially, a playground without any rules. (This is much the same game plan he brought to the horror genre several years later with Exorcist II: The Heretic). It’s true that there’s no shortage of Big Ideas in Zardoz, but they don’t have much to do besides hang around and wait thirty years for Boorman to record his DVD commentary and talk about how brilliant they are. They’re rarely integrated into the narrative in any dramatically satisfying way, unless you find the spectacle of Sean Connery clad in Borat’s nut-sling and thigh-hugging go-go boots being chased by naked women on horseback to be the stuff of gripping cinema.

Much mirth has been made at the expense of Connery’s junk-hugging loinwear over the years, and not nearly enough at the expense of his agent — assuming, of course, that someone in the position of keeping Connery’s film career in good standing actually recommended that his first post-007 role should be Zed, the ape-like anti-hero of Zardoz. Zed is an “Exterminator” under the control of the godlike being for whom the movie is named — a giant floating stone head filled with guns. But Zardoz is actually Arthur Frayn, a nebbish with a twirly painted-on mustache, a meek man behind the curtain — you know, like the Wi-ZARD of OZ! (Rumor has it that if you play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon simultaneously with the Zardoz Special Edition DVD, winged monkeys will fly out of your butt.)

What we have here is your basic dystopian future of the haves and have-nots. The haves are the immortal Eternals who live within the Vortex, which have-not Zed manages to infiltrate by hiding in the giant stone head. Once inside, Zed finds himself at the center of a power struggle between those who want to enslave him and those who see him as a superior being who can deliver the one thing they can never achieve on their own — sweet, sweet death. It’s pretty much the flipside of Logan’s Run, except nowhere near as straightforward as that makes it sound. Boorman fiddles around with lo-fi visual effects, such as a freaky split-screen shot in a reflective pyramid, and a character whose face has been aged on one side. (Forced aging is a punishment in the world of Zardoz, which never seems more of its time than when one Eternal is accused of “transmitting a negative aura.”) The climax is jam-packed with fuzzy-headed futurism: a goofy hall of mirrors that may be Boorman’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001 lightshow; reversed footage that depicts a roomful of broken statues reassembling themselves; and a final time-lapse sequence in which Zed and his mate, having escaped the Vortex, stand in a cave and age into skeletons.

As a relic of the pre-Star Wars era, Zardoz is not without interest, although the trippy twaddle is undermined by long stretches of tedium. If only Boorman had thought to turn the whole thing into a rock opera, it might be the ultimate 1974 time capsule. Note to Hollywood: If Zardoz: The Musical indeed comes to fruition, be warned that my attorneys are standing by.

(Let us now pause briefly to give passing mention to the late, great Robert Altman’s misbegotten foray into arthouse sci-fi, Quintet. This is the third time Altman’s icy disasterpiece has qualified for mention in this column, an unprecedented honor that must be commemorated for posterity. It therefore gives me great pleasure to announce Quintet as the first and sole member of the Bottom Shelf Hall of Fame.)

Moving on to another dark, dystopic corner of arthouse sci-fi, we find the magical realists. These guys know nothing about hyperdrives, wormholes or tribbles, nor do they care; they just want an excuse for doing weird shit. Take Until the End of the World, Wim Wenders’ “ultimate road trip,” set in the remote, unknowable future of 1999. Yes, the movie was made in 1991, so we have an unfair advantage in evaluating where Wenders went terribly wrong, such as his absurd notion that the Talking Heads would still be together. Still, Wenders did get it mostly right — we do have dashboard navigators, high-definition televisions and electronic devices that record and play back our own dreams. (I believe the new iPhone has this capability.)

Until the End of the World is a little goofy, but it will never earn a space on the bottom shelf as long as copies of Thomas Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love are still in circulation. Set in the summer of 2021, this nutty fable incorporates Big Ideas ranging from global climate change to cloning to the Flying People of Uganda. (Don’t ask.) People are dropping dead on the streets of New York, their corpses simply stepped over or piled into garbage bins. Why are these sad, lonely people dying? Their hearts are suffering from an absence of love. (I believe that’s the magical realism part; either that, or a rough draft for the worst Paul McCartney song ever.)

Joaquin Phoenix, who appears to be speaking his English dialogue phonetically, is in town to sign divorce papers with future ex-wife Claire Danes. Danes is a world-famous figure skater with a Natasha Fatale accent, constantly surrounded by family, flunkies and management weasels. She wants to retire, but the weasels can’t have that; there’s too much money to be made. Their solution: the creation of three Danes duplicates as insurance — and just to make sure the secret doesn’t get out, the original Danes must die. Phoenix and Danes forego their divorce proceedings and lam it out of town, eventually arriving in a frozen wasteland straight out of Quintet. As a bonus, there is also Sean Penn as a character circling the globe on a series of planes, unable to ever land. It’s unclear whether this has anything to do with the Flying People of Uganda.

Vinterberg’s intentions are not that different from those that Aronofsky brings to The Fountain. They each want to tell the most poignant, heart-wrenching love story of all time, one that transcends our petty notions of time, space, gravity, weather and acceptable hairstyles. Science fiction is simply a means to an end, a way of infusing pedestrian “greatest love of all” sentiments with an aura of cosmic transcendence. The same can be said for Solaris — not so much the Tarkovsky original as Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 version. On one level, you have to admire the self-confidence of a director who thinks he’s just the guy to remake both a swinging Rat Pack caper and an existential Russian space opera; but while the Ocean’s 11 movies bring out the fun-loving frat boy in Soderbergh, Solaris signals the arrival of the tiresome film student. George Clooney is in glum, joyless mode as a psychologist reunited with his dead wife while investigating strange doings on a space station. Is this heaven? Or are malevolent aliens fucking with his head? These and other heavy philosophical questions weigh down this white elephant, which plays like a Star Trek episode directed by someone who’s been reading up on Antonioni films in back issues of Sight and Sound.

The big name talent may be lost in space, but a handful of young guns are reclaiming arthouse sci-fi for geeks who debate temporal physics in comic book stores. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko fused John Hughes-style high school angst with mind-bending time twists (and most importantly, a big scary bunny) and ended up crafting a genuine cult object. (His follow-up, Southland Tales, has not yet been released as of this writing, which is a shame as advance reports suggest it’s a slam dunk for inclusion in this column.) Perhaps even more impressive is Shane Carruth’s $7000 feature debut Primer, which calls to mind Homer Simpson’s classic evaluation of Twin Peaks: “Brilliant! I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.” Carruth’s DIY aesthetic is reflected in the movie’s byzantine plot, which begins with four techies toiling in a garage, designing and building homemade inventions for fun and profit. Right from the beginning, Carruth makes no concessions to accessibility or spoon-fed drama, as the characters converse in nearly impenetrable techno-speak about framistans and doofalator valves and such. The almost documentary-like approach to guys in ties talking shop serves the same function as the banal dialogue in 2001: it roots the story in mundane day-to-day life. And we need that grounding, because, as in Kubrick’s opus, the movie is about to take a big leap into the unknown.

Two of the young techies, Aaron and Abe, have a side project in the works — some sort of superconductivity doohickey. The device turns out to have an unexpected bonus feature: time travel. Enter the box on Tuesday at six p.m., hang out for six hours, and you will emerge Tuesday at noon. Which means there’s another copy of you out there who has to hang around in a motel room for six hours to make sure he doesn’t run into you and cause some sort of time/space disturbance. Aaron and Abe quickly figure out that they can use this infernal machine to their advantage on the stock market, but when a business colleague stumbles up on the box and figures out what it does, all hell begins to break loose.

Exactly how it does so is the subject of much conjecture, and nearly impossible to untangle on first viewing. It’s a head-spinning paradox encompassing multiple timelines and numerous copies of Aaron and Abe, all unfolding with a bare minimum of exposition. Check out the movie’s Wikipedia page for an obsessive breakdown of the jumbled timeframe and see how far you get before your brain seizes up. So yes, it’s complex and thought provoking, but does this make it a good movie? Maybe not, but Primer proves you don’t need grandiose visuals and elaborate special effects to stimulate the imagination — and that’s really what arthouse sci-fi should be all about.