**Spoiler Alert: This review contains more than a usual hinting of things surrounding the plot. If you wish to go into “The Fountain” with little knowledge about the film as possible, leave now, and come back when you’ve seen the film.**
When confronted with films such as Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” it’s a common- albeit simple-minded- arguement among the film’s admirers for them to say that detractors “just don’t get it.” I try to avoid such procouncements because of their simple-mindedness; if you can explain your reasons for your contrary opinion to mine with some thought put behind it, that’s good enough for me.
In the case of “The Fountain,” however, I feel as though I have to break against that avoidance. I think detractors- some of them, at least- of Aronofsky’s third feature- after his avant-garde stylistic experiments in 1998’s “Pi” and 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream”- don’t get it, but not because they’re putting too little thought into it, but too much. The way Aronofsky moves between time periods- from 16th Century Central America to 21st Century America to the 26th Century cosmos- is not meant to confuse the story but to clarify the themes and feelings within it. “The Fountain” is a bold return to the aesthetic of using visuals to convey ideas- and in this case, emotions- we haven’t much seen since Stanely Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1970s masterworks “Solaris,” “The Mirror,” and “Stalker”; the closest we’ve come in recent years- I think- is Steven Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” but even that was a little too chatty in tying things up.
At the core of “The Fountain” is a simple- and powerful- love story between Tom (Hugh Jackman, capping a mind-blowingly busy year- six features in all- with his fiercest and most forceful role to date) and Izzi (Aronofsky’s fiancee and Oscar winner Rachel Weisz, in a performance that inspires easy admiration and undoubted respect for her talent). Tom is a researcher experimenting on animals with brain tumors (“Requiem for a Dream’s” Ellen Burstyn also has a key role as Tom’s boss); he’s determined to find a cure so that Izzi- who’s studying Mayan culture for a book she’s writing- may overcome death and prolonge life…at least for a little while longer.
I think the thing that’s got people kind of perplexed about the film is how Aronofsky (who conceived and researched the story, though Ari Handel has co-story credit onscreen) uses the past and future sequences to tell his story. Both are essential for Aronofsky to tell his story (which would otherwise just be movie-of-the-week material), but he’s not telling- as has been widely considered- a time-travel love story. The only “real” storythread is the modern day strain; the 16th Century tale of a Spanish warrior (Jackman also) searching for the fabled Tree of Life for his queen (Weisz also) in the ancient Mayan land is really the story from Izzi’s book, which she’s in the middle of writing even as her illness progresses. Thematically, Izzi’s book is the parallel to Tom’s real-world quest for a cure; in it is imagined a battle between the warrior and an army of Mayan warriors, a final confrontation with the tree’s protector, and then finally the warrior standing at the foot of the tree itself, where- such as the way of things when men attempts to act as Gods- what is found is not life-giving but taking away. Once you realize that these sections in the film are part of Izzi’s book (which is never spelled-out, but an easy conclusion to draw nonetheless), seeing how they coincide with the modern day sequences in reflecting Tom’s emotions is not an issue.
Less clear as we’re watching is how the 26th Century sequences- with Jackman playing a futuristic incarnation of himself standing at the foot of the now lifeless tree while memories of Weisz’s Izzi manifest themselves- fit into it all. I think it’s the last chapter of Izzi’s book, which Tom must write himself. Astute viewers will remember early on in the film how Izzi shows Tom a nebula that relates to her Mayan research, how they believed that through death they could be reborn, just as the nebula in question would be. The same visual design from what Tom’s shown in the telescope in the earlier scene is fully realized in the future sequences, as Jackman’s character and the tree are placed in the middle of the nebula. In all three strands of the story, the film- shot by Aronofsky’s regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique- is brilliantly visualized, from the simplist piece of art direction to the most complex (the 16th Century sequences look like they cost a fortune; pretty damn good for a $35 million budget), but these sequences are visionary, imaginative and astonishing in the same way the final 20 minutes of “2001” was in 1968 (and still is today). Few films in the years since Kubrick’s masterwork have achieved such a level of real visual awe; Alex Proyas’ “Dark City” and Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and “Stalker” are the only ones that come to mind. That the effects- designed by Jeremy Dawson and Dan Schrecker and their company Amoeba Proteus- were achieved sans CGI make the achievement even more impressive to the naked eye. This is one of those films where the true fan would love to devour all the audio commentaries and behind-the-scenes documentaries they could get their hands on to know everything about how it was made, yet would be afraid of forever dampening the film’s hold over their imagination by doing so; it’s a cinema-geek quandry shared by all the other films mentioned in this review.
Aronofsky connected me with this story of love out to conquer death emotionally. I became immediately engaged in Tom’s struggle to hold onto Izzi for even just a little longer, in all of its’ manifestations. The 16th Century warrior’s violent, obsessive quest to do his queen’s bidding by bringing her immortality. The 26th Century spaceman’s emotional quest as he realizes that through death, he and his beloved can live forever. And the modern-day scientist whose lost wedding band serves as a symbol of how his own ambitions- which may have started selflessly- now drive him selfishly away from his dying wife. There’s a haunting lyricism to the film and its’ interweaving of the different narratives; this is personal filmmaking on the level of epic art. Aronofsky has found a visual way of telling an emotional love story in such a way that dialogue seems almost unnecessary; Clint Mansell’s beautiful and imaginately-conceived score (an elegant work of experimentation performed by Kronos Quartet and Scottish rock band Mogwai) speaks volumes more about what the characters feel and how their triumphs and tragedies effect their emotional states than any of the dialogue in the film. Its’ love story is set in the confines of cinematic fantasy, but the love at the center of “The Fountain” felt more honest than any I’ve seen in such a film before. It may not fit the modern Hollywood definition of the word, but “The Fountain”- ambitious, bold, and innovative- is the true definition of the word “epic.”