The Fountain might most charitably be thought of as a feature length trailer. There is only about three minutes of story in the whole film, despite the epic conception. The movie takes place in three time periods: the Spanish Inquisition, the near-future, and the space odyssey future. Mr. Aronofsky, with the help of macro photographer Peter Parks and other brilliant special effects artists, has created a visual tone poem without the use of any computer-generated elements. Ironically, the man who made the anti-drug movie Requiem for a Dream now brings us a movie that is best enjoyed in a drug-addled state.
Perhaps if the budget had not been slashed in half, Mr. Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel wouldn’t have had to repeat the same story beats over and over. While the ambition seems to be an organic rather than linear progression, the editing of the movie tends to give away all the wrong exposition at first, sending us quickly into outer space before we have understood the nature of Tomás’ (Hugh Jackman) quest. Similarly, when Jackman plays Tommy, a researcher desperately seeking a cure for brain tumors before his afflicted wife (Rachel Weisz) succumbs to one, we see him first jilt his wife and act imperious to his colleagues. All of this acting in a vacuum will eventually make sense (and then not–see after the spoiler barrier) but until then, most audience members will be antagonized beyond the point of interest.
It would seem Jackman and Weisz’s characters are living forever. But this is not an epochal, intergalactic romance. As the film goes forward, we learn the conquistador section is just a dramatization of Izzi’s novella in the middle period, which is in turn a Buddhic hallucination of the final starchild Creo (from the Latin root for ‘grow’?). Although Creo has traveled through time and space, he does not seem ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. Even at his shiva-sitting best, he doesn’t accept death.
Aronofsky intended to break new ground, but he ends up mostly echoing 2001 while avoiding saying anything truly meaningful about death. Showing characters crying and dying has little force if we don’t think of them as real people but just abstract concepts.
All that said, The Fountain remains a haunting and beautiful piece of filmmaking. I disagree with nearly every choice the storytellers made (apart from the sound design, which is mauled by the string-heavy score) but nonetheless have enormous respect for the attempt. I think that a theatergoer in the right mood could really be absorbed in the glowing poetry of it all.
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