I hate using the words “not for everyone” simply because there really isn’t anything that is for everyone (claims by Sara Lee to the contrary), but Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is probably a little more not for everyone than your average movie.
With the exception (for very different reasons) of John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, The Fountain is easily the most boldly experimental film to come out of 2006 so far — and it’s more than a little ironic that it’s not playing in 100 art house theaters, but has been given a standard release in nearly 1,500 mainstream movie houses. It’s even more ironic that critic Ray Bennett heads his negative Hollywood Reporter review by asking, “Zardoz anyone?” since The Fountain‘s wide release recalls the days (roughly 1968-1975) when it wasn’t uncommon to find some pretty heady fare — like John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) — booked into regular theaters. (This was the period between the “it’ll never play in Peoria” mindset and the era of marketing experts and demographics.)
And I suppose there’s a little Zardoz in The Fountain — along with some of Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and perhaps even a smattering of George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine (1968). But influences to one side, Aronofsky has made a work that is completely his own — one that exists in its own universe and is ultimately not much like anything else.
To start with, it is the best-moving leisurely paced film I have ever seen. The key to the film’s pace is the speed with which the Hugh Jackman character from the future (who may or may not be the same character from the past and the present) floats through space in his snow-globe-like bubble. It’s neither slow nor fast, but its movement is constant. And so is the pace of the film, which is measured but never dull.
The film is divided into three stories. The first is that of a Spanish conquistador, Tomas (Jackman), who at the behest of Queen Isabella (Rachel Weisz) leads a journey to South America to find the mythical “tree of life.” The second set in the present day centers on research scientist Tommy Creo (Jackman), who is racing against time to find a cure for his wife Izzi’s (Weisz) brain tumors — something he may have found with a bit of wood from a strange South American tree. The third concerns what may be Tommy 500 years in the future, traveling on a lonely mission through space with what appears to be a dying remnant of the “tree of life” in an enclosed mini-environment.
The stories are not presented chronologically, but are intercut to form one single story. In fact, The Fountain is one of the very few films told in this manner that absolutely would not work with a more linear structure. It isn’t that the pieces of the narrative are simply intercut; it’s that an action in one time frame often provokes the reaction in another. This undoubtedly sounds more confusing than it is, because Aronofsky completely fuses the three stories into one by the end of the film.
More remarkable than the structure, however, is the fact that Aranofsky has dared to make an unabashedly mystical — even spiritual — film that completely ignores the dictates of the marketplace. And while doing so, he has refused to affix a specific message to the film. Instead, he leads the viewer on a journey and asks him or her to make what they will of that journey and its concerns on love, immortality and the choices we make. I have yet to discuss the film with any two people who have come to the exact same conclusion. I have also yet to hear a reading of the film that wasn’t perfectly valid. It isn’t the sort of film that leads to right and wrong arguments. Rather, it leads to the exchange of ideas — an occurrence as rare as finding a film like The Fountain in a multiplex.
At the same time, it’s refreshing to encounter an effects-heavy film that isn’t wholly reliant on CGI. Despite the visual grandeur of the film (and you won’t find a better looking movie around), nearly all of its effects are simple ones that date back to an era before anyone ever heard of CGI. As is often the case, this imbues the film with a sense of solidity lacking in far too many modern films. What you see — no matter how abstract or fanciful — you believe, because it never seems cartoonish.
If there’s a flaw in Aranofsky’s film, it lies in the filmmaker’s inability to make his characters quite as human as they might be — but I’m less sure today that this is actually a flaw than I was three days ago. As it stands, The Fountain is infused with a deep and rare sadness (albeit not a depressing one) that might be compromised if the characters were better defined. Perhaps it’s better that they remain ciphers for anyone and everyone. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violent action, some sensuality and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke