Admirably ambitious and running the emotional gamut from syrupy to sublime, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is a resolutely uncommercial big-think sci-fi piece that I expect will strongly divide audiences. (My guess is, you’ll either love the film or turn on it in the first half-hour.) I found it a bit broad at times, particularly in the early going, and I definitely had to make a conscious decision to run with it. That being said, I thought The Fountain ultimately pays considerable dividends as a stylish, imaginative, and melancholy celebration of the inexorable cycle of life, from birth to death ad infinitum. In its reach, The Fountain at times suggests 2001, and even if that reach probably exceeds its grasp by the end, it should still be applauded for so fearlessly tackling such heady themes, box office be damned. And if nothing else, The Fountain will not only make you contemplate the meaning of it all, but contains several haunting images, like scraps of a fever dream, that will resonate long after the movie’s over. All in all, not bad for ten bucks.
Like Requiem for a Dream and especially Pi, The Fountain is more about mood than plot, per se. Nevertheless, we begin in the sixteenth century, with a scruffy conquistador (Hugh Jackman, having a banner year) paying respects to what appears to be his beloved (Rachel Weisz) before embarking on a suicide mission against a Mayan temple. Before we’re fully acclimated to what’s going on, we’ve leapt to the twenty-sixth century (No, no Twiki), where that conquistador is now a bald, tattooed, Tai Chi practicing monk, traveling across the cosmos with an ailing tree and suffering visions from an age long hence. After a few bewildering minutes here, we find ourselves in our present, where neuroscientist Tom Creo (Jackman) is struggling against time to develop a cure for his wife Izzy (Weisz), before she succumbs to a brain tumor. As The Fountain progresses and we switch back and forth through these three timelines, a picture slowly coalesces of a man-out-of-time (no, not him either), determined beyond all bounds of hope or reason to defeat death and defend his one, true love from its thrall.
In all honesty, The Fountain suffers from some clunky moments in the early going, particularly when Weisz is forced to deliver exposition regarding Mayan beliefs about the Tree of Life, Xibalba (the Mayan underworld), and the Orion Nebula. And some, such as former Slate writer David Edelstein, couldn’t seem to get past the Clint Mansell score, which — as in Pi and Requiem — is hypnotic-bordering-on-intrusive. But, once you get past the somewhat unwieldy set-up, I found the movie’s themes considerably more sophisticated and less banal than most reviewers are giving it credit for. The romance here is pushed front-and-center, sure, but I found The Fountain moving less as a simple love-conquers-all tale than as an eloquent Zen meditation on mortality. (As one character puts it in the film, “Death is the road to awe.”) If matter is neither created nor destroyed, then, in a way, we are all immortal — the elements that make us up were around since the Big Bang and will continue to be around, reconstituted in other forms, long after we’re dead (“in the stars above, in the tall grass, and the ones we love,” to paraphrase a poet when he contemplated a similar plight to Jackman’s.) Indeed, in this fashion, each of us — made up of a combination of matter that, however briefly, has achieved sentience — is the universe trying to express itself. That is no small thing.
Moreover, in The Fountain (and akin to Jacob’s Ladder), Jackman’s character ultimately isn’t fighting to save his love as much as fighting his fear and despair over loss, not only of Weisz but of himself, his own ego: in short, his fear of death. As Weisz’s character says several times over, “I’m not afraid anymore.…Finish it.” Jackman’s Creo is afraid, so he won’t or can’t. “Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure,” writes Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. “But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transiency, we suffer.” To my mind, this suffering, and the overcoming of it, lies at the heart of Aronofsky’s The Fountain. I thought the richness of both its vision and its ideas helps it elide over a lot of the pacing and exposition problems in the early going. So, in sum, go see The Fountain: I’m not sure you’ll like it — it’s very possible you’ll love it — but I’m willing to bet, either way, that it’ll stick with you.
[One addendum/caveat/boast: As it happens, I saw The Fountain Monday night at a very private screening/cocktail affair. (How’d I get in? Long story…basically, Aronofsky and I have a mutual friend.) I’ve admitted earlier to being an inveterate celebrity hound, and in terms of celeb-spotting this was manna from Heaven. Of maybe 40-50 attendees, 10-15 were instantly recognizable folk: Not only Aronofsky, Jackman, Weisz, and Ellen Burstyn (also in the film), but a gaggle of other high-profile celebs: Bowie(!), Lou Reed, Mike Myers, Iman, Helena Christiansen, Ben Chaplin, Elizabeth Berkeley, etc. So, I’m almost positive I’d have liked and recommended The Fountain regardless, but I’m forced to admit (re: would like to brag) that I saw it under more-than-ideal circumstances. (Yes, I played it cool despite being famestruck, but I’d be lying if every so often in the first half-hour of the film I found myself thinking “Am I really sharing an armrest with Famke Janssen right now? How bizarre.” Not very Zen of me, I know, but sometimes I’m just a material guy.)]