FOUNTAIN, THE (director/writer: Darren Aronofsky; screenwriter: based on a story by Mr. Aronofsky and Ari Handel; cinematographer: Matthew Libatique; editor: Jay Rabinowitz; music: Clint Mansell; cast: Hugh Jackman (Tomas/Tommy Creo/Tom Creo), Rachel Weisz (Isabel/Izzi Creo), Ellen Burstyn (Dr. Lillian Guzetti); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Eric Watson/Arnon Milchan/Iain Smith; Warner Brothers Pictures; 2006)
“It’s more original than any mainstream or art film I’ve seen over the past few years.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Talented, flashy and evidently obsessed writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s (“Pi”/”Requiem For a Dream”) sublime metaphysical time traveler sci-fi melodrama about the quest for eternal life, covering three time zones, adapted from his own novel with Ari Handel, is awash in sentimental mysticism, psychedelically induced philosophical musings, romantic mistiness over eternal love and much confusion over its lyrical storytelling. It’s a strangely inexplicable odyssey about one man’s eternal struggle to rescue the woman he loves, that’s told in a non-linear way and moves in a circular chronology suggesting the workings of a mandala.
It begins with a brave bearded conquistador, Tomas (Hugh Jackman), in 16th-century Spain who is ordered by Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz, mother of Aronofsky’s child), who’s threatened by the Spanish Inquisition, to go into the jungles of Guatemala in search of the Fountain of Youth, where he finds the Tree of Life (the same Tree that was in the Garden of Eden, but hidden from mankind after the Fall) behind a hidden Mayan temple and drinks sap (a white semen) from the Tree after fleeing from the savage Mayan warriors. As a result of his experience a new life grows out of him (such as vegetation), and he becomes the life-force for creation (the New Age man). It intercuts with a tale of a modern-day brooding medical research scientist, the unshaven scraggy bearded Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman), a true believer in finding immortality who is injecting an experimental monkey with his untested compound to find a cure for his lovely forlorn dying wife Izzi’s (Rachel Weisz) brain tumor cancer but accidentally stumbles upon a recipe for reversing the aging process that also shrinks tumors. Izzi feels neglected by her workaholic hubby, who ignores her pleas to join her for a walk in the first winter snow as he feverishly tries to find a cure for her illness. She’s trying to finish writing in longhand, on an old-fashioned leather-bound tome, a fablelike novella entitled “The Fountain,” which is the same conquistador story the film opened on. Before dying she tells her hubby she has completed everything about her Mayan culture researched book but the last chapter and requests that he should “finish it.” To preserve her memory the scientist plants a tree next to her graveside, believing that her spirit will be part of the tree as learned from the Mayans and the Adam and Eve tale in the Bible. He also keeps her memory alive eternally by having an ink stain around his marriage finger substitute as a marriage ring, having lost their real wedding ring. Further interspersed into the mix, that goes back and forth between the three time cycles, is the third tale of the same Tom figure, again played by Hugh Jackman, who is this time around a bald astronaut time traveler floating in levitation in a bubble through the universe in a lotus position in the 26th-century and startled enough to start screaming when he’s awakened to discover he’s traveling over a snow-globe universe to an unknown destination that hints of being the Garden of Eden. Here he sees an apparition of his wife and discovers a tree that might be like the one he planted for his wife. The message seems to be that death is just another illness that can be cured by finding the answers to immortality, but the only way to get there is by dying. That’s why the grand inquisitor says in one scene “Our bodies are prisons for our souls,” and the film’s spiritual journey becomes the thing of most importance and not necessarily the end of the journey.
The overly ambitious work of grief and love that raises more questions than it answers is a somewhat incoherent mess that presents many ponderous plotlines and imponderable enigmas for any one film, but that’s not to say it isn’t nevertheless fascinating despite all its ambitious failings. It’s more original than any mainstream or art film I’ve seen over the past few years and is filled with scores of colorful images (and so many mandalas), and though certainly not a perfect film I can still say I found it visually amazing. The main problem I had was over the shortcomings of the script (the storytelling seemed banal at times and the script lacked a more robust dialogue fitting for such an epic) and that the film is not an easy one to grasp all the concepts it tosses around in such a hapless manner. The filmmaker leaves many loose ends hanging without explanation, which has the potential of making this pic look better to those who see it a number of times and fill in the blanks with their own observations based on their experience with a pulpish mystical world. But it leaves the novices in these fields too much out of the loop. It’s visually pleasing as a spectacle that’s more geared to being an immensely enjoyable cult film for those with an open mind who claim to get it, as its detractors might zero in only on its tendencies to appear somewhat pretentious (just like some critics still say about Tarkovsky, even though he’s generally acknowledged by now as a cinematic genius). Aronofsky doesn’t explain all the dream logic laid on us (which for the most part is a good thing), but he does let us know that love is the key ingredient to our life journey and to eternal life (nothing new here, but the filmmaker’s sincerity can’t be questioned). There are also story line omissions that might leave us not only perplexed but tantalized over all the possibilities raised of making a connection between superstitions, ancient civilizations (such as the Mayans), modern science experiments on aging and stabs at futuristic spiritualism (taken from the Old Testament book on Genesis, the Mayan afterlife beliefs, Buddhist yoga experiences and Christian mysticism). It was just too much to crunch a thousand years of history into a film and expect to cover all bases, nevertheless I have no beefs with the filmmaker’s aims just in how he sometimes carried them out (repeating too many critical scenes is one thing that upset me and too many fadeouts to white is another). But when I look at the overall picture and see how mind-blowing it is, those failings seem minor.
Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett might be relieved they backed out of such a fuzzy project, but I can’t see Pitt or Blanchett better suited for the parts than were Jackman or Weisz. Aronofsky waited a long time to get his baby on the screen and even though he had his projected 70 million dollar budget sliced in half, his persistence and willingness to be true to himself paid off in a visionary film not dictated by the usual norms of the film industry. He left himself open and vulnerable to be mocked as one can readily see by the caustic remarks of some notable critics who could only see the negatives over the positives; but like many other films from Citizen Kane to 2001: A Space Odyssey that also opened to such abuse upon their theater releases, I surmise that the last laugh will be on those clever critics with their English lit barrage of barbs who hit below the belt in their attacks.
The great actress Ellen Burstyn is fine playing an ineffectual supervisor, in a minor role, to the renegade lab scientist Jackman. She comes across as an overbearing finger wagger to the obsessed scientist but really loves him despite frequently bawling him out for being such a pompous rebel to the ethics of scientific research
REVIEWED ON 12/18/2006 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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