The Reeler

Reviews

November 22, 2006

The Fountain

Aronofsky's high-concept head-scratcher rewards viewers with rich visuals and profound poignancy

"Pretentious" isn't inherently a bad word. Thus, to dismiss writer-director Darren Aronofsky's hyper-ambitious third feature The Fountain -- a heady fusion of science fiction, metaphysics and a melodramatic quest for immortality both romantic and spiritual -- for simply believing in its own sentimental grandiloquence is to deny one of the most exquisite and strangely moving trips to the multiplex this year. In fact, it's a bit baffling why Warner Bros. took the risk of pitting such a mature, high-brow picture against wide-release rivals rather than allow mini-major Warner Independent to distribute in the art house theaters it might better serve. Hey, if all it takes is an Oscar-winning actress and Wolverine to bring a work this daring to the masses, you won't hear any complaints from this corner of the space-time continuum.

As its near-perfect original trailer suggests, The Fountain unfolds like origami over three wildly disparate eras, each starring a surprisingly dexterous Hugh Jackman as a sort of tortured and impassioned adventurer. Fade in to the gloomy Inquisition age of 16th-century Spain, where he's Tomas the conquistador, on a mission from Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz, meeting her director-fiancé's aesthetics halfway to exude angelic mystery) to seek the Garden of Eden's mythic Fountain of Youth, supposedly hidden in a secret Mayan temple. Cut to the present day, when medical scientist Tommy Creo spends nearly every waking hour tinkering on lab monkeys' brains in hopes of curing the cancer that's slowly eating away his wife Izzy (Weisz again). Flash forward to the interstellar unknown of the 26th century, in which bald yogi Tom meditates and tattoos himself at the base of an eerily anthropomorphized Tree of Life, all inside an oversized snow globe of a spacecraft aimed towards a rejuvenative nebula called Xibalba.

If this were nothing more than an exercise in parallel editing, Aronofsky's overlapping triptych is destined to become a subheading within film professors' curricula. Match-cutting and elliptically repeating its iconic imagery with deceptive simplicity, the film hypnotizes with its odd array of gold circles, triangular points of light, the constellation Orion, tree bark and fractal textures. As lensed by the director's regular cinematographer, Matthew Libateque, through a hallucinogenic coating of gray grit, great attention has been put towards its in-camera stylings -- a rarity in these CGI-obsessed days of the sci-fi genre. Center-framed symmetry, Kubrickian geometry, scrupulous overhead shots and a perpetual sense of motion present even in the film's patient moments help unite the parts to a whole with narrative purpose beyond a pop-stylist's wont to seem clever.

Much has been written about the film's years of development hell and casting potentials (at one time, Babel-rousers Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were set to star), but if budget compromises are the reason for the film's spatial disconnect -- that is, a feeling of epicness within intimate close-ups and small-ish setpieces -- then it only bolsters the film's theme that death is far more expansive in actuality than its idea can be intellectualized. Add to that another intense, quixotic score from Clint Mansell with help from The Kronos Quartet and Mogwai, and the next 96 minutes breeze by like a requiem and a dream.

So if these threads stitch together visually and aurally, are Tomas, Tommy and Tom the same guy? Only the relationship between the 16th and 21st centuries is satisfactorily explained, but the three men's goals are singular: to save a dying woman (or a she-tree, or an entire motherland), these equally selfless souls become persistent in their search for everlasting life, all to a crushing point of nearsightedness. Izzy's introduction best spells out Tommy's paradoxical obliviousness: that he'd rather spend his time racing for her cure than playing in the snow with her while she still breathes. We know everyone must accept death sooner or later, and while the key dramatic clash here is that this trio of Toms cannot, The Fountain pushes farther by making an assumption that death is only the naissance of something else. Let the abstract particulars of New Age philosophies spew forth like milky goo from the Tree of Life!

Or rather, what the bleep does Aronofsky know? The birth-by-death concept is brought to a literal and luminous extreme in the space-bubble segments, which unfortunately seem to be the polarizing make-or-break for most viewers to determine whether this is all too sappy and silly to be taken seriously. To be highfalutin for a second, this is ground control to Major Tom: Are you, the ontological astronaut, a cinematic representation of Theseus's paradox, questioning if a man's likeness, memories and pursuits create the same identity in a futuristic realm whose corporeal link can't be explained? Are you the five-century-old version of Tommy, who has found an antidote to "death, the disease?" Are you a fictitious character, or already in the afterlife? Thankfully too succinct to ever frustrate, The Fountain is a bona fide head-scratcher with enough puzzle pieces in place to warrant a second viewing. Whether or not its poker-faced trippiness feels too ridiculous or forced might depend on where you sit on the spectrum between romantic optimism and jaded pessimism, because this critic can't quite fathom why more haven't given themselves over to this wonderful film's profound poignancy.



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Comments (3)

Amen. Beautifully expressed, thank you.

It is a rotten shame how badly this picture did in the box office, while everyone lines up and bows down to the very much less tan Children of Men.

What a wordsmith - indeed I agree the most challenging piece in this jigsaw is establishing the relationships between the three T's. However, films like this encourage optimism, love and acts of selflessness, this is justice enough for its existence.

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