Read First: You asked, and here it is. Although I must warn that for those of you who want to experience The Fountain in all its novelty, I would save this review for after you've watched it in November (it could feature spoilers, but that depends on how much you have already read/heard about the film.) It was a difficult one to write, mostly because I wanted to love it so badly.
After overcoming several obstacles by way of severe budget cuts, controversial casting changes and ever-shifting release dates, The Fountain has finally been unearthed. Almost five years in the making, Darren Aronofsky's labor of love is an ambitiously mounted science-fiction epic about the legacy of undying love and the great mysteries of human life. Set in three separate eras in human history (or is it really?), the narrative tracks one man's quest to locate the fabled "fountain" of eternal life that will save the woman he loves from certain death. This is quite the departure for the director in relation to his prior work (it lacks the blunt nihilism of Requiem for a Dream's final moments, for one thing - his approach here is much more subdued and longing.) The Fountain admirably grapples with questions about the afterlife and the meaning of existence in this universe. While the director should be lauded for attempting to deliver on such a mature premise, the end result is lamentably shallow and impenetrable in its examination of these same ideas. To be blunt, the film is a one-show wonder, equal parts majestic and hokey. It delivers on some spectacular eye candy care of Peter Park's macro photography effects, but little in the way of narrative clarity. To be sure, Aronosky's manner of juggling three non-linear threads looks impressive on paper, but the story crumbles due to its vagueness.
The Fountain begins quite literally "in medias res", providing no prior context to these two characters and the romantic relationship they share (whether the three couples - all enacted by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz - are actually related to one another or are the same figures is one of the film's surprises.) The first incarnation of the saga centres on a Spanish conquistador (Jackman) sent off on a mission by Queen Isabel (Weisz) circa the 1500's to find the fountain of life in the jungles of South America. Complications arise with the threat of her overthrow by a fanatical and power-hungry Inquisitor, determined to execute her on charges of heresy. Meanwhile, in the present day, lab researcher Tom Creo frantically works day and night to find a cure for his wife Izzi's malignant brain tumor. His moodiness and bad attitude frequently clash with the chief of research (an underused Ellen Burstyn), who is concerned that he is fighting a losing battle. The film's third thread is set sometime in the faraway future; Tom is shown suspended in outer space, constantly haunted by the memory of his lover. He spends his time meditating in close proximity to an enormous decaying tree, which seems linked to the fading lifeforce of Izzi. How these stories correlate is what The Fountain explores with full verve.
That is, it attempts to do so in the constrained space of a scant 93 minutes. To say that The Fountain is underwritten (and even aimless at times) is not stating matters accurately. The film whips along speedily at the sacrifice of true character depth or even emotional involvement; again, who exactly are these characters? Why does Aronofsky spend so little time developing them as people and instead focus his attentions on repeating certain scenes and lines of dialogue across the time periods? While the shifts back and forth between past, present and future are all initially attention-grabbing, the momentum eventually stops at a standstill. In fact, one of these plotlines feels forced and questionable because its inclusion in Tom and Izzi's love story is justified through a feeble conceit. Oversights such as these considerably weaken the director's convictions; indeed, this moment in particular completely took me out of the film.
But the film's biggest failing may be in the manner it ends. Aronofsky provides many definitive statements about the hereafter and fate of the soul, but has little philosophy to back it all up. In the end, The Fountain becomes little more than a mouthpiece for Aronofsky to articulate his tidy, non-complicated version of life after death. For all the shots of Tom floating in the lotus position or the screenplay's allusions to the Mayan afterlife, none of it quite holds together. Even the twist that is played along these same lines is ineffective, because it feels too much like a sleight of hand. Certainly, Aronofsky includes plenty of arresting images to guide the viewer through this elementary and facile understanding of the other world, but this viewer was left cold nonetheless. Once the closing credits began to appear, I was at a loss to understand how Aronofsky was able to close on this strange, problematic note.
Hugh Jackman is truly the life force of The Fountain, throwing himself body and soul into this demanding, half-baked role. The actor is forced to commit to some rather taxing and perplexing moments (sometimes even played against himself or with a tree), and pulls them off strongly without a moment's hesitation. It is telling of Jackman's talent that he is able to present Tom as a three-dimensional person when there is nothing to support that much on paper. Rachel Weisz does not fare as well, although it could be argued that she has so little to build upon in the first place. Izzi is not so much a believable human being as a saintly ideal coaxing Tom to come to terms with her inevitable death. This understandably forces the actress to enact a character that she (as well as her director) does not quite understand. Her line readings are forced and unsure, adjectives that could never be used to describe her vibrant Oscar-winning portrayal of Tessa Quayle in last year's The Constant Gardener. Aside from this pair (who furthermore share no believable chemisty), the other cast members are left to make impressions in the few pockets of screentime available here and there. Pros like Ellen Burstyn, Donna Murphy (Doc Ock's wife in Spider-Man 2), Sean Patrick Thomas and Ethan Suplee are wasted in filler roles as concerned research colleagues of Tom's.
On one hand, I want to celebrate The Fountain as a commendable effort, but at the same time I am hesitant to do so in light of its many stumbles. It is a must-see for sure, and the film will likely have its ardent fans who will be thrilled by Aronofsky's fanciful ideas about love, life and death. In spite of my frustration with the piece, I still want to revisit it later this year when the taste of disappointment begins to clear a bit. In the meantime, I will turn again to Steven Soderbergh's underrated Solaris remake, a similarly-themed and superior science fiction romance, to get the emotional fix I missed out on with this one. C
UPDATE, November 25th: On a second screening, I have decided to bump the grade to a B. New capsule review to follow shortly.