Trippy sci-fi/fantasy/romance gets lost somewhere in space and time
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn
There’s a lot to admire but not quite as much to love about The Fountain, the new film from edgy indie director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream). Difficult to discuss and impossible to categorize, the film is a beautiful, brilliant and frequently baffling art house tone poem about life, death and immortality. While The Fountain’s commercial prospects are dim at best, it wouldn’t be at all strange to find the film an eventual object of curious cult worship.
The film is billed as a science fiction piece, and it may very well be. Or not. The melancholic story is set in three different periods of time. During the Spanish Inquisition, a hotheaded conquistador named Tomas (Hugh Jackman) is sent to Central America to locate what he believes is the sacred hiding place of the Tree of Life as advertised in the Bible. In modern-day America, a depressed research scientist named Tommy (also Jackman) tries desperately to find a cure for his dying wife’s cancer. Finally, in some far-flung future, a man identified in the press kit as “Tom Creo” (Jackman once again) pilots some sort of high-tech soap bubble through deep space in order to deliver a dying, seemingly sentient tree to a mysterious nebula.
Long, slow, dreamily composed segments follow our three protagonists on their triptych of single-minded quests. The most significant segment seems to be the modern-day one, in which our morose hero moons over his beatific wife (Rachel Weisz, who appears in the other segments as well) and considers using an experimental drug (taken, significantly, from the bark of an unknown Central American tree) to save her life.
The cinematography and set design are intentionally theatrical, making each image in the film look like an an iconic, artfully composed painting. The level of intricate detail is insane--from the baroque metalwork of Queen Isabel’s throne room to the glitter-filled psychedelic haze of outer space--and will be utterly lost on anything less than the big screen. Computer-generated imagery is kept to an absolute minimum, giving the whole thing an otherworldly yet realistic feel. In the past, our hero lumbers through claustrophobic jungles to scale a towering Mayan pyramid. In the present, our hero wanders around the impersonal steel corridors of a snowbound research laboratory. In the future, he floats around space looking like Buddha while lots of tie-dyed constellations erupt around him.
That’s pretty much the long and the short of it. With all three stories tightly intertwined, major developments are kept to a minimum. At some point, it is revealed that Tommy’s wife is writing a novel called--hold onto your seats--The Fountain. It seems to be about a Spanish conquistador looking for the Tree of Life. Hmmm. Curiouser and curiouser.
Ultimately, it’s hard to tell exactly what story The Fountain is trying to impart. Is Hugh Jackman’s character an immortal pursuing his ladylove throughout eternity? Is a majority of the film some fictional flight of fancy penned by a dying woman? Is it all supposed to be one big metaphor? Or is this nothing more than a long, arty look at Hugh Jackman shaved bald and floating through space in a giant snow globe?
You’ve got to at least give Aronofsky credit for creating a film this high-minded and unique. The Fountain’s only recognizable antecedent is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s trippy, obscure and guaranteed to inspire hours of post-film discussion among college students and drug users. It’s also just as likely to inspire head-scratching and shoulder-shrugging from mainstream audiences, who may be drawn to the film’s different look and emotional love story, but will almost certainly find the film’s heady cocktail of art, pretension and New Age/religious iconography lost somewhere in space.