Joseph Hall once wrote “Death borders upon our birth, and our cradle stands in the grave.” In other words, like it or not, death is an inevitability for all of us. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that death features prominently in popular culture. Countless films, books, poems, and songs feature death as a prominent theme, often in an attempt to make it seem less frightening to the rest of us. There are two films in particular that explore the concept of death with grace and style, and while they share many similarities, they both approach the subject in very different ways.
Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, director Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002) is set in the near future, and tells the story of Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), a psychiatrist who is still mourning the death of his beautiful but damaged young wife, Rheya (Natasha McElhone). One night, Chris is visited by a pair of mysterious emissaries from the enigmatic DBA organization, who inform him that his best friend, Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) has committed suicide while serving aboard the space station orbiting the distant planet Solaris, a bizarre unexplored world on the far side of the galaxy. Kelvin is sent to investigate his friend’s death, but when he arrives, he is immediately confronted by a series of strange and unexplainable phenomena that leave him unsettled. Eventually, Chris finds the two remaining crew members, Drs. Gordon (Viola Davis) and Snow (Jeremy Davies), both of whom appear to be every bit as shaken as he is, if not more so. After interrogating them, Chris retires to his room to get some rest, and he spends a fitful night dreaming of his dead wife. When he awakes, he is shocked to find Rheya lying next to him, very much alive. Chris and the two shell-shocked scientists soon determine that the apparitions that have been visiting them are somehow being sent by the planet that is slowly turning just below them, but what they can’t figure out is why. Is Solaris trying to communicate? If so, what does it want? Furthermore, are the apparitions even alive? Are they human, or something else entirely? What does it even mean to be human? Are we the sum of our experiences, or is it simply a matter of biology? Now, Chris has to try and uncover the answers to these questions, while at the same time, confronting his feelings for the being that has taken on the form of the woman he loved.
The Fountain (2006), meanwhile, is a harrowing, heartbreaking, but ultimately cathartic tale about coming to terms with the death of a loved one, and learning to accept it. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the film follows Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) as he hurtles through the depths of space in what appears to be a clear bubble, his only companion a gnarled old tree. His destination is the distant star Xibalba, which is on the verge of dying in a spectacular fashion. Tom believes that the energies released by the dying star are the only thing that can breathe new life into the old tree, which in turn will bring his darling wife back from the dead. The trip is long and lonely, so Tom spends his time meditating, and reliving the memories of his old life 500 years in the past. Back then he was Doctor Tommy Creo, a cancer researcher desperately seeking a cure for the debilitating disease before it claims the life of his beloved wife, Izzy (Rachel Weiss). To distract herself, Izzy is writing a book about a brave Conquistador named Tomas, who has been dispatched by Queen Isabella to find the Tree of Life and claim it in the name of Spain. All three stories play out simultaneously, but it is only when Tom reaches his destination and comes to accept the inevitability of death that they finally come together, and reach a stunning and satisfying conclusion.
In addition to some deeper thematic connections, the films share a number of surface similarities. First and foremost, they are both about damaged and lonely men who have lost their wives, and have been left devastated as a result. Tom Creo is living with the memories of his beloved Izzy, tortured by the fact that he allowed her to face cancer practically on her own, while he was away trying to find a cure. Sure, he was trying to save her, but in doing so, he lost whatever precious little time they had left together. It is this knowledge that haunts Tom the most, and drives him on his quest to take the dying Tree of Life to the remote star Xibalba in order to restore its vitality. Similarly, Chris Kelvin is tormented by the knowledge that he ostensibly drove his wife to take her own life. After learning that Rheya had an abortion without telling him, Chris threatens to leave her. Rheya breaks down, pleading with him to stay and telling him in no uncertain terms that she cannot make it on her own. Chris ignores her and storms out of their apartment in a rage. When he returns the next day, he finds Rheya dead of an overdose and clutching a copy of the Dylan Thomas poem Chris used to seduce her when they first met. Rheya’s death leaves Chris devastated, and he shuts himself down emotionally, effectively isolating himself from the rest of the world. Both Tom and Chris are doomed to live with the knowledge that they have utterly failed the women they loved, and it leaves both men broken shells of their former selves.
In addition to that, there are a number of other aesthetic similarities between both films. The spirits of Izzy and Rheya loom large over each film, and they appear to their suffering husbands in a variety of ways, most notably in the form of ominous voiceovers. In Solaris, Rheya’s first appearance is as a disembodied voice that is at once sensual and dispassionate. We see Kelvin sitting on the edge of his bed, waking up from what we can only assume was another night of restless sleep, and we hear Rheya’s disembodied voice asking, “Chris, what is it? I love you so much. Don’t you love me anymore?” Right from the start, Soderbergh is telling us that something is wrong, though we’re not yet sure what it is. The viewer is immediately made to feel unsettled and intrigued, both by the strange and almost overbearingly loud quality of the voice, and the quiet note of desperation in its tone. Similarly, our first introduction to Izzy in The Fountain is a haunting whisper telling Tom to “Finish it.” We don’t yet know who the voice belongs to, or what she wants Tom to finish, but it nevertheless leaves the audience feeling on edge and wanting to uncover the answer with him. The voiceover is a striking way to introduce the specters of Rheya and Izzy, and in each instance, it works a kind of magic on the audience, drawing viewers into the film and leaving them feeling a sense of anticipation for what is to come.
Ultimately, however, both films are about death, though they each approach it in very different ways. Whereas The Fountain is about learning to accept the inevitability of death, Solaris is more interested in the ways in which we keep lost loved ones alive in our memories. Chris feels responsible for his wife’s death, and he has not been able to move on. All he has left of Rheya are memories, and he clings to them as though his own life depends on it. When he gets to the Solaris station and is confronted with a copy of his wife, he starts to believe that this is his chance for redemption, that they can do it all over again, only this time he’ll get it right. He is not willing to accept that she may not be human, or that she may be nothing more than an imperfect copy tainted by the imperfect nature of his own memories. All that matters to Chris is that his wife is alive again, and this time, he isn’t going to let her down. He chooses to stay on Solaris, living with an imperfect image of his dead wife. Chris has rejected death, and instead chosen to live within a world of his own memories.
Tom Creo, on the other hand, discovers that there is a sort of beauty in coming to accept that death is an unavoidable fate. Like Chris, Tom shut himself off from the rest of the world after Izzy died, but he did so in a much more literal fashion. Prolonging his life by eating the bark of the Tree of Life, Tom encased himself in a self-sustaining bubble, and set off to the farthest reaches of space, alone except for the aforementioned tree. He has spent nearly 500 years mourning his wife’s death, replaying the last days of her life over and over again in his mind. The memories are constantly shifting and changing, as they often do, and the only thing that keeps Tom going is the knowledge that once he reaches Xibalba, he will be reunited with his dearly departed Izzy. However, by the time he arrives, the Tree of Life has died, and Tom realizes that his quest to bring her back is ultimately futile. He realizes that death is inevitable for all of us, and by letting go of his fear of it, he comes to understand that it is simply a part of life, which will go on long after he is dead. Instead of running from death, he is finally ready to accept it, and in a transcendent moment, he embraces his own demise, which occurs at the same moment that Xibalba explodes in a spectacular display. Tom may be dead, but he has at last taken his first step down the road to awe.
Shakespeare called death “[t]he undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns.” This is one of the things that makes it so frightening. It is the cessation of our very being, the end of all that we are. We are the sum of our memories, yet all of us are ultimately destined to consign them to oblivion. We want to believe that we will live on, and that we will somehow endure until the end of time, but deep down, we all realize that is a futile wish. With Solaris and The Fountain, Soderbergh and Aronofsky explore these fears, and each attempts to allay the viewer’s fears in different ways. Soderbergh gives us a note of hope, though a bittersweet one, by allowing Chris Kelvin to live within his own memories for eternity. Aronofsky, on the other hand, is assuring us that death is not to be feared, and we shouldn’t spend our lives trying to keep it at bay while losing time with those we love. Instead, we should be making every moment count, and creating the memories that will sustain us as we await the inevitable. While the films may be telling us different things in the end, they are both concerned with the same topics, and that is why they are perfect for Cinematic Soulmates.