2006Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn
he Fountain opens suddenly on a solitary man looking to the sky in prayer. The man (Hugh Jackman), a 16th century Spanish conquistador, is preparing to lead a group to a discovery that will restore a weakened Spain and its queen (Rachel Weisz) to its former glory. A priest has found signs of the Tree of Life—and Jackman is going to find it.
With this spare beginning, director Darren Aronofsky, in his grandly conceived third feature, grounds the narrative immediately—before catapulting the audience through three different centuries on an epic quest for eternal life. It’s one of the few times the film comes up for air.
Cut to present day, the thankfully lucid centerpiece of this elephantine story, as Tommy (also Jackson) heads a small team working towards a cure for brain tumors—something he undertakes in the hope of curing his wife Izzie’s (also Weisz) illness. There is a breakthrough: After a controversial procedure involving an untested compound from a tree in South America, an ape in Tommy’s experiments shows signs of reverse aging, which does not immediately cure the tumor but stimulates the ape’s brain activity to levels higher than it had been in years.
Meanwhile, in an apparently post-Earth future, a man awaits in an often-meditative state for a golden nebula to explode and consume him along with his own Tree of Life. Once the dying star explodes, he believes he and the tree will be reborn.
Built on a mythology so expansive it attempts to explain life through ancient civilization, faith, and modern science all at once, The Fountain is staged so audaciously that it’s able to balance each of these fronts almost effortlessly. And yet in each one, at the heart of this stunningly realized story, there is an age-old motivation that holds them together: a girl. As it turns out, the story in Spain is part of a novel that Izzie is close to completing. But she can’t quite come up with an ending: “It's all done except the last chapter,” she tells him, and she wants him to fill in the void. The quest is what links these three stories directly as well as figuratively—each work toward the same end, the pursuit of a fountain of youth that will allow the lovers to remain together forever.
If this all sounds like exorbitant, self-important nonsense, it is. And it isn’t. Aronofsky, the maverick visual genius behind Requiem for a Dream and Pi, has clearly hit the books to make this movie, but it never seems he’s merely created a showcase for his knowledge. He wants to provoke, not inform. By juxtaposing differing views on life’s origins—and the various forces, past and present, that have been said to control life and death—within the same film, he’s asking questions—not telling you the answers (for most of the film, at least).
Where the movie fails is in its dependence on image repetition and nonlinear narrative connections to bring together story threads whose relationship is never quite clear. Is this all a single story, or three different ways of telling the same story? Is this really set over the course of 1,000 years, or is it all within the same few weeks in the characters’ imaginations? If Aronofsky didn’t want us to have the answer to these questions, that would be one thing, but he makes a cloudy and rushed attempt to explain them in the closing moments that doesn’t quite come off.
The Fountain will be regarded in some circles as self-indulgent nonsense, but even independent of its ideas, there’s still an uncommon experience here. You may need a second viewing to pick up on its subtleties, but so what? The Fountain is urgently alive, and that has to count for something in a year of film as drably conformist as this.