Fountain, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/22/06 16:14:27
A few days ago, I happened to be watching the newly issued DVD of the 1956 sci-fi classic “Forbidden Planet” (definitely worth picking up, by the way) and it occurred to me that even though it is generally regarded as one of the high-water marks of the genre, there is no way that any studio would finance such a film today. Sure, it is a film that contains plenty of gadgets (led by the inestimable Robby the Robot) and still-impressive special effects but “Forbidden Planet” is a sci-fi film that places its emphasis on ideas–such as the notion of the innermost and unchecked desires of a person’s id being made into reality by mysterious alien technology with tragic results–over the special-effects hardware. While there used to be a place for such similar films as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Alphaville” or the original version of “Solaris,” the enormous success of “Star Wars” basically ensured the idea that if a sci-fi movie was to have a chance of making it, it needed to have cutesy robots and laser battles a-plenty. Every once in a while, someone tries to buck the system with something like “Dark City,” “AI: Artificial Intelligence” or “A Scanner Darkly” but the tepid reactions they received from audiences and critics alike–both of whom seemed to want more of the same old stuff instead of the challenging notions those films posed–have ensured that the majority of such genre films in the future will either be noisy space operas or, even worse, films like “I, Robot” in which interesting ideas are briefly introduced and then shoved out of the way to make room for more car crashes and explosions.As a result, a film like Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” is most likely going to confuse and perplex critics and civilian audience members alike. It is a sci-fi film, true, but one closer in spirit to the likes of “2001" than “Star Wars.” It tells a story–three stories, in fact–that spans over 1,000 years in a resolutely non-linear fashion that requires viewers to stay alert throughout. It concentrates on complex emotions and intellectual debates instead of icky aliens and state-of-the-art special effects. Finally, it concludes with a mysterious final sequence whose meaning has been left for the individual viewer to interpret for themselves. For many people, such a combination of elements is likely to send them out into the street in an emotional state ranging somewhere between confusion and annoyance. However, those who realize that the sci-fi genre is capable of something more than providing mere eye candy should seek this film out as soon as possible for it is the real deal that they have been longing fo–a sprawling, hypnotic and emotionally devastating epic that actually does deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as “2001.”
As you might have guessed from the title, “The Fountain” deals, to one degree or another, with the idea of the so-called Fountain of Youth and, by extension, the notion that man can somehow figure out the secrets of immortality in order to live forever. Here, Aronofsky weaves together three tales featuring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in different eras all grappling with the question of everlasting life. In one, set in the 16th century involves conquistador Tomas (Jackman), who has been charged by Queen Isabella (Weisz) to venture into New Spain, a land guarded by the Mayans, in order to locate the Tree of Life, a tree whose sap supposedly brings eternal life to those who consume it. Such a belief has branded Isabella a heretic and her life is now in danger so in order to convince Tomas to undertake the task, she vows to marry him upon his return. Naturally, he agrees and sets off on a brutally violent quest for the tree in order to win the hand of his beloved Isabella.
The second story is set in the present time and finds Jackman playing Tom Creo, a research scientist who is struggling to find a cure for cancer and Weisz is Izzi, his beloved wife who is slowly dying of a brain tumor. Obsessed with trying to find a way to save Izzi’s life, Tom ignores proper scientific procedure in order test a serum on a monkey that has been devised from the bark of a mysterious tree in South America. This leads him to a severe dressing-down from his superior (Ellen Burstyn), who feels that Tom could make better use of his time spending it with Izzi instead of knocking around the lab in an attempt to find the impossible. One day, however, the monkey begins to show a remarkable regression and it appears that Tom may well have found a cure for cancer–however, will it be enough to save Izzi? The third story takes place in the 25th century and Tom is now a bald astronaut type who is hurtling through space in a giant bubble containing the Tree of Life. His beloved wife is dead and he is trying to reach a distant galaxy that supposedly houses those awaiting reincarnation. Unfortunately, the Tree of Life is itself dying and Tom is in a race against time to get it to its destination before it finally succumbs and loses all of its mystical powers forever.
Like his previous films, “Pi” (1998) and “Requiem For A Dream,” “The Fountain”finds Darren Aronofsky once again taking a look at people who attempt the impossible in their efforts to achieve some kind of transcendence and who wind up destroying themselves as a result of those efforts. Those films were both astonishing achievements but the particular quests that their protagonists undertook–a numbers wizard looking for a predictable pattern to the stock market and finding what may be numerical proof of the existence of God in the former and junkies looking for the ultimate high in the latter–may have been so removed from the lives of the average moviegoer that their concerns may not have fully resonated with them. “The Fountain,” on the other hand, deals with man–a creature who goes through life fully aware of his mortality and his inability to do anything about it–and his desire to uncover the secrets of eternal life. This is an idea that every one of us has probably speculated upon from time to time–who among us hasn’t thought how wonderful it would be if we, along with our loved ones, could live forever without fear of the ravages of disease or death? Of course, the problem with that is the inescapable fact that death is indeed a part of life and if you take it away, everything gets thrown out of balance. Study Tom in the future story as he hurtles through the cosmos in his bubble–he may be immortal at this point but he certainly doesn’t seem especially happy about it. Then study Tom in the present-day story–he may have discovered a cure for cancer that will change the world forever but I bet that if he had a say in the matter, he would cheerfully destroy it in a heartbeat if it meant that he could spend a little more time with Izzi. There is not a soul out there who won’t be able to identify with these feelings and as a result, “The Fountain” resonates with an emotional punch that Aronofsky’s previous films, as brilliant as they were, simply didn’t have.
Of course, a lot of the credit for the emotional power of “The Fountain” goes to the striking lead performances delivered by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. Both are put through the acting wringer here–each one is playing several similar-yet-distinct roles in a variety of time periods and have to create fully-developed and believable characters for each one if the film is to have the kind of emotional impact it needs in order to succeed–and both pull it off with flying colors. A few weeks ago, I was remarking on how Jackman’s work in “The Prestige” was the best thing he had done to date on screen but he surpasses himself here. Throughout the film, he has to appear as a blood-and-thunder warrior, an emotionally devastated doctor and a mystical space traveler and he handles each one so effectively and distinctly that if you didn’t know that he was playing all three parts ahead of time, you might simply assume that it was the work of three different actors. Weisz is just as good as the various women in his lives–with just a few words or a look, she conjures up the kind of beautiful soul that anyone would be inspired to go to astounding ends in order to help her. Of course, this effect is helped somewhat by the inescapable fact that Aronofsky and Weisz are a couple in real life and that he films her with the eye of someone truly besotted–not since Jean-Luc Godard channeled his feelings towards wife Anna Karina through such films as “A Woman is a Woman” and “My Life To Live” has the love of one person to another been communicated entirely through the art of the close-up.
Although the ideas and emotions are the elements that are clearly driving “The Fountain,” it is also a fairly staggering technical achievement as well. Each of the three storylines approaches the material from a wildly different narrative approach–the 16th century tale is a brawny and highly physical adventure, the modern-day version stresses the emotional aspects while the futuristic take is a frankly intellectual head trip–but Aronofsky has melded his various tales together in a manner that allows them to complement each other in a strangely satisfying manner using incredible precision editing from Jay Rabinowitz that somehow packs an incredible amount of visual and narrative information into a film that is 96 minutes long without ever feeling rushed. There are also stellar efforts from cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who comes up with one arresting image after another, and a driving score from Clint Mansell, once again working with The Kronos Quartet, that outdoes their contributions to “Requiem For A Dream.” And when they are firing on all cylinders together, as they do during the trippy finale, the results will simultaneously blow the mind and break the heart of anyone watching.“The Fountain” is a great and truly visionary film and for Darren Aronofsky, it is both a personal triumph and the culmination of a journey as seemingly impossible as the one undertaken by his characters. Originally, the film was planned as a $90 million dollar epic to star Brad Pitt–sets were built, money was spent and he was just about to start filming when Pitt suddenly pulled out and caused the production to shut down. Under normal circumstances, this would have meant the death of the project but Aronofsky refused to give up on it. After a few years of trying, he cut the budget in half, rejiggered the screenplay and finally got it before the cameras. Unlike his characters, his stab at transcendence has had a happy ending and the result is an experience to behold.
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