The Fountain (2006) / Fantasy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, some sensuality, and language
Running Time: 96 min.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Mark Margolis, Cliff Curtis, Sean Patrick Thomas, Ethan Suplee
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky
Review published November 27, 2006
Destined to become a sort of cult masterpiece to some viewers in the future, Darren Aronofsky's (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) metaphoric exploration into the fact, fiction, and myth of mortality delves headfirst into themes of life, death, the afterlife, and the rebirth. It also takes place in three separate storylines, from the Conquistador era of the 16th Century, to today's scientific era, to several centuries in the future, with each era containing characters portrayed by Jackman (Scoop, X-Men: The Last Stand) and Weisz (The Constant Gardener, Constantine), all featuring a desperate search to continue life. It's a tall enough order for any movie, particularly one with a lean 96 minute running time, and while it doesn't quite succeed in delivering the necessary emotional ingredient to be a true masterwork, credit Aronofsky for (once again) crafting a film completely different that anything you've seen before.
Although marketed as a love story that takes place over a millennium, the actual story never really takes place in the past except through a fictional book written by one of the present-day characters, Izzi, who is fading from a soon-to-be-fatal brain tumor that her suffering oncologist husband, Tom, is desperately trying to find a cure for. The other prong of the film, the future of the 26th Century, is a bit murky, as one can see it mostly as a metaphor for the present-day events, although some might take both side stories as literal (Aronofsky himself seems to allude to it as a real future) if they so choose.
The backbone of the film is the present, where Tom is busy testing on monkeys in order to see if he can find a way to reverse the brain tumor that is slowly killing his beloved wife. In the course of his experimentation, he injects an untested dosage taken from a tree in Central America, and soon discovers that there is something to the compound that has regenerative powers to reverse aging. However, Tom is too heavily invested in saving Izzi, so he has little time to continue his research into the properties of the substance, while his wife continues to write a story about the search for the mythological Tree of Life, entitled "The Fountain", that she may not be able to finish by the time she expires. Meanwhile, we flash forward to the future, where a man, potentially Tommy himself (assuming he might have kept himself alive with the regenerative powers of the legendary tree), travels full speed to a distant nebula in a large space-traveling biosphere, trying to find a way that he can be with his beloved wife for all of eternity.
Over five years in the making, undergoing a variety of script and casting changes, Aronofsky's final work is the sort that challenges in its ultimate meaning, utilizing a variety of narrative devices, with heavy symbolism, allusion history and legend, to tell a complete story about one man's refusal to accept the mortality of his wife to live alone without her. At its core, it is a love story, but really, it's about the search for meaning, existence, and the interconnectedness of past and present events, mythical and scientific, and how it all forms who we are and what we will be as human beings.
Certainly, this is an ambitious work, similar to the way that 2001: A Space Odyssey had been upon its initial release, and while Kubrick's visionary work has become a masterpiece over time, it's highly uncertain how Aronofsky's will fare for future generations. For now, it remains a befuddling work, visionary to be sure, but one that feels curiously like a short story that has been somehow beefed up to feature-film length, with a romance based in tragedy yearning to compel us, but missing that vital emotional core that allows us to truly connect with it.
Nevertheless, The Fountain ultimately proves to be a worthwhile film for those who enjoy being challenged by ambitious films that seek to enrich us with a deeper thematic exploration without providing any concrete answers, save that there is so much we don't know about ourselves and the universe around us. In many ways, it hearkens to the original Solaris in its perplexing artistic exploration of the human condition. Alas, it's merely "interesting", when all the while, Aronofsky was shooting for "mind-blowing", and the result is that his masterwork is left cold, aloof and, at times, too pretentious to embrace outright. Perhaps a more fleshed out version of Aronofsky's original vision may emerge one day to finally do justice to his story, and it might actually transcend cult classic status. As released today, it remains an ambitious, muddled experiment that fails to compel just as much as it succeeds to inspire.
-- Aronofsky's original vision was previously made into a graphic novel published by DC/Vertigo in 2005 as a means to tell his story after a previous theatrical project fell through.
©2006 Vince Leo