I think Darren Aronofsky is a genius. The director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream has distinguished himself as a master visual stylist as well as an innovative storyteller. In a field with more than its share of hacks, Aronofsky is a genuine visionary. His third feature, The Fountain, failed to get much traction at the box office last Thanksgiving, where it was buried beneath more high-profile features. (The fact that it’s not an easy sell probably didn’t help.) Thanks to the miracle of home video – and I mean that sincerely – the movie now has the chance to be discovered. This sci-fi mind-bender deserves to find the kind of devoted and appreciative fan base that transformed Donnie Darko from theatrical underachiever to modern day cult classic.
The story takes place in three different time periods, each 500 years apart. The central part is set in the year 2000. A scientist named Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) works feverishly on a new medical procedure that will potentially cure the brain tumor that threatens the life of his wife Izzie (Rachel Weisz). She wants to spend her final days (however many there may be) with him, but he keeps running off to the lab, hoping that he can make a breakthrough before time runs out.
Izzie is a writer who uses her convalescence to pen a book set in 1500 A.D. Her story deals with a Spanish conquistador named Tomas who, at the request of Queen Isabella, sets out in search of a magical “Tree of Life” rumored to give immortality to anyone who drinks of its sap. As Tommy reads the manuscript – which is clearly metaphorical – he imagines himself as Tomas and Izzie as the queen. Late in the film, Izzie asks him to do something with her book that proves to be the key to unlocking the movie’s central theme.
Finally, there’s a section set in 2500 A.D. Tommy is floating through space in a bubble, his only companion a tree whose bark he eats for sustenance. During his time in the bubble, he reflects back on his life with Izzie. There is great meaning in why he is still alive so far in the future, and why he’s traveling with the tree, and where he is going. I will let you discover these things on your own, though, because doing so constitutes the magic of The Fountain. Although the three segments are set over the course of 1000 years, they all tie together in a love story that transcends time and space.
What can safely be said about The Fountain without giving anything away? I suppose it’s fair to say that Aronofsky is reflecting on the meaning of death. It is something most of us fear and wish to avoid, yet, as the saying goes, death is a part of life. The section set in 1500 asks whether it is conceivable to live forever, the one set in 2000 asks whether it is possible, and the one set in the future asks whether it is even desirable. In that bubble is where you will find Tommy’s (and Aronofsky’s) answer.
The Fountain is the kind of science fiction movie that appeals to people who believe in something other than attacking aliens and starship battles. Like Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko and Alex Proyas’ Dark City, this is a film about ideas - one that is not afraid to challenge the viewer’s attitudes and perceptions. Human mythology has always been fascinated by the idea of eternal life. Rather than just using the concept as a springboard for fantasy, The Fountain takes the concept seriously, pondering what the cost of immortality really is. It knows that living forever means nothing unless everyone you love is doing it as well; to live alone for eternity would be an exercise in endless heartbreak.
As always, Aronofsky finds a visual style for his movie that is unique. One of the smartest choices he makes is to eschew CGI effects wherever possible. Many of the futuristic images seen while Tommy is traversing space in his clear bubble were accomplished through “microphotography” – the magnified filming of real chemical reactions occurring in a petri dish. As pointed out in the DVD’s special features, this approach creates a future that is subject to all known laws of physics, which makes a subliminal impact upon the viewer. It also looks indescribably cool. It’s a significant way in which The Fountain sets itself apart from other sci-fi movies. This looks and feels like nothing you’ve seen before.
The film also contains good performances from Jackman and Weisz, a haunting score from Clint Mansell, and an end credit sequence that is so atmospheric and mesmerizing that you won’t want to look away. (How many movies can rightfully boast hypnotic credits?) My sole complaint – if you want to call it that – is that at 96 minutes, The Fountain is a little too short. What’s here is beautiful and profoundly moving. I just wish that the characters had been given a little more back-story. While well played by the stars, we know nothing of Tom and Izzie’s life before 2000. A few scenes showing their love affair before she got sick would have made this even more emotionally powerful than it already is.
That said, this is a film I want to see several more times. Darren Aronofsky continues to push boundaries and offer up new storytelling approaches that demand repeated viewings to fully absorb. Truth be told, The Fountain is a “love it or hate it” deal. Some people will “get” the film and take it to heart; others may be thrown off by the metaphorical and fantastical elements of the story. If you are lucky enough to be one of the viewers to really “get” the film, then you’re in for an experience that will touch your soul.
( 1/2 out of four)
Considering rumors that Aronofsky initially had a longer cut of the film, it is surprising that the DVD contains no deleted scenes. (As I said, I’d have loved to see some more Tommy/Izzie backstory.) However, the disc does contain the theatrical trailer, as well as an enlightening six-part making-of documentary entitled “Inside the Fountain: Death and Rebirth.” Rather than relying on the stars and filmmakers engaging in self-congratulatory interviews, the featurettes emphasize behind-the-scenes footage that nicely conveys how Aronofsky set the tone for his story. When there are “talking head” moments, they tend to be far more substantive than most discs offer. I was particularly gratified to hear brilliant cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Inside Man, The Number 23) describe how he accomplished some of the film’s most breathtaking shots.
The making-of doc doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff either. In 2004, after pre-production work had begun in Australia, the studio shut everything down when the original star unexpectedly bailed out. There is footage of Aronofsky announcing the shutdown to his staff, as well as some discussion of how he reconceived the movie as a lower-budgeted project in order to get it started back up again. (The abandoning star is never named but, for the record, it was Brad Pitt.)
The Fountain is presented on DVD in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is nothing short of stunning, and it is essential in helping set the movie’s atmosphere. HD-DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the disc are also available. Whichever format you choose, The Fountain is a great movie, and the special features add significantly to its value.
The Fountain is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violent action, some sensuality and language. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat