The Fountain seems like a damned curious piece of work until you realize the likely circumstances of its creation. Unable to shake the germ of a great idea having to do with a fallen Spanish conquistador, the Mayan Tree of Life, and an astral journey toward a distant nebula that may be the entrance to the underworld, writer/director Darren Aronofsky forced a narrative opportunity, and then pursued that dream even as it seemed to be collapsing under its own weight. He’s made a film that’s unlike anything else you’ll see this year — clearly influenced by Kubrick, and perhaps by Tarkovsky and Bergman, it ruminates on the inevitability of death, spins mythology into some kind of psychological resonance, and doubles as a love letter to his life partner and mother of his child, Rachel Weisz. It’s messy. It’s also, to my eyes, more than a little silly. It’s a work of huge ambition that has the air of grand folly.
The Fountain was originally conceived as a big-budget vehicle for Brad Pitt, who was meant to star with Cate Blanchett. After Pitt pulled out, Aronofsky managed to move the whole project into a cheaper neighborhood, which speaks volumes for his dedication to the concept but hasn’t really done the audience any favors. The present-day storyline has Hugh Jackman portraying Tom, a brain surgeon playing dice with neurology and racing against time in a desperate attempt to find a way to shrink the tumor inside the pretty head of his wife, Izzi, played by Weisz. It works fairly well in a B-movie kind of way. There’s a fun reveal when the audience realizes that the patient that’s been prepped for Tom’s operation is actually a monkey named Donovan, and a pleasantly ludicrous moment when Tom has a moment of lucidity while looking out a golden skylight, and starts stirring up a new brain-building concoction made from parts of “that Central-American tree” his doctor buddies apparently have laying around the lab. With Izzi growing more ill with each passing day, it’s no wonder Tom is fixated. “Death is a disease,” he snarls at one point as the film teeters close to out-and-out camp. (If only Dr. Herbert West were lurking around the next corner with a glowing green syringe!)
Weisz was a saving grace in The Constant Gardener, the vivacious presence that counter-balanced Ralph Fiennes mopey, ineffectual bureaucrat until her character vanished from the story. Here, she’s crippled by a screenplay that has her at death’s door from square one, and she seems to have been instructed to do naught but smile sweetly and evince a childlike sense of wonder as Izzi. But Izzi has something else up her sleeve. She’s working on a book. Handwritten in handsome calligraphy as though sprung full-fledged out of her tumor-addled brain is a historical yarn, titled the fountain and dramatized on screen as a narrative inside the narrative. It involves a brave conquistador (Tom again) sent into the heart of the Mayan civilization by the Queen of England (Izzi again), who believes he can find a great living artifact that will confer upon its keeper eternal life. Not only does Weisz lack the regal bearing to bring off her performance as royalty, but it’s here where the film’s budgetary constraints become crippling. (Just three dudes from Spain expect to waltz through a Mayan stronghold that protects the most precious of all earthly religious artifacts? Wouldn’t you want to take a small army, instead?)
For me, where The Fountain really stumbles is in the third of its stories, which takes place deep in outer space as a far-future version of Tom meditates his way toward the Xibalba Nebula, where he will come face to face with death itself, and begin to understand the truth that the death of one thing is a necessary event leading to the life of another. Narratively, this is important because it represents how real-world Tom eventually comes to terms with his own fear of death, and his pain at the death of his beloved. Before she dies, Izzi asks him to complete her unfinished adventure story, and Tom fills in the final chapter with the story of conquistador Tom’s dubious triumph and of Yoga Tom’s ultimate enlightenment. (Somehow, it’s a kind of astral projection backward across the centuries, that seems to allow future Tom to save the life of conquistador Tom. Perhaps we’re meant to understand that conquistador Tom is strengthened in his own quest by Yoga Tom’s drawing nearer to the end of his?)
Well, I’m not particularly inclined to dig deeper; If Aronofsky’s just gone over my head, I’m prepared to live with that.
There’s also a scene where the Tree of Life starts leaking copious amounts of semen all over conquistador Tom that’s emblematic of Aronofsky’s heavy-handedness — but if you get through that, the scene is punctuated with a startling image of death and sudden rebirth that’s just stops-out awesome. (In a better film, it could be scene-of-the-year material.) Aronofsky’s a talented filmmaker, and he has a vision — but some of The Fountain felt very strained to me, like the repeated and self-conscious allusions to a lost wedding band as a symbol of a squandered capacity for love.
He has gotten press for avoiding CG imagery and using old-school visual-effects photography for these deep-space sequences, a decision that I’d call admirable in concept because much of what passes for effects these days is derivative and tacky. And if some of the imagery is as striking as advertised, the resolutely piss-yellow tone of the outer-space proceedings eventually made my eyes tired. And the image of Hugh Jackman floating around in the lotus position, superimposed against the grandeur of the cosmos like the blue-screened Christopher Reeve in front of the New York skyline in Superman: The Movie, is so cheesy it’s almost sublime. The Fountain is too big to qualify as a truly personal film, and too small to fill out its own epic dimensions. It’s a work of integrity but, sadly, I can’t help feeling that it’s an awfully gaudy thing, too, maybe even an act of hubris — a tightrope act that slips off the wire.
Writer/director: Darren Aronofsky
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Production design: James Chinlund
Editor: Jay Rabinowitz
Costumes: Renée April
Music: Clint Mansell