Much of the pre-release publicity for The Fountain has centered on the fact that it took writer-director Darren Aronofsky almost six years to bring this trippy sci-fi flick to the screen. Written in the wake of his acclaimed 2000 feature Requiem for a Dream, the film was set to go before cameras in 2002 with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett starring as lovers whose romance literally spans generations. Then Pitt pulled out of the movie only a few weeks before shooting began and Aronofsky fell into a long period of inactivity. Eventually, he went back to his keyboard and came up with a stripped-down version of his original script that attracted the attention of Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. This new Fountain started filming in late 2004 and now, at long last, it arrives in theatres for everyone--or, at least, the five percent of the moviegoing public that will actually turn up for it--to see.
You've got to admire Aronofsky's tenacity; six years is a long time to spend obsessing over one film. And in many ways, The Fountain is an impressive achievement. This is a visually rich, highly emotional and excitingly ambitious science-fiction epic that has been crafted in the vein of Kubrick's 2001 and Tarkovsky's Solaris. As in those films, every frame of The Fountain feels carefully planned out; there's not a camera move or bit of acting business that Aronofsky hasn't signed off on. It's always a pleasure to watch a movie from a director who understands his or her vision through and through and has the talent to go about achieving it. At a certain point, though, one has to seriously question what that vision is.
If you've seen the film's striking trailer, you already know that The Fountain takes place in three different time periods: 16th-century Spain, present-day America and outer space circa 2500. In each of these eras, our central character Tom Creo (Jackman, in an impressive performance) is on a mission to find the secret to prolonging life--not his life specifically, but the life of his one true love, Isabel (Weisz). This quest takes on different forms depending on the setting. In the present-day sequences, Tom is a brilliant scientist who has devoted all of his time and energy to curing his dying wife's cancer. While her husband is at the lab all day exploring new frontiers in medicine, Isabel works on a novel about a conquistador named Tomas who is dispatched to the New World by his beloved Queen to hunt for the Fountain of Youth. Finally, there's that Tom Creo in the 26th Century storyline, which finds a remarkably well-preserved Tom traveling through the cosmos in a giant bubble with only a tree for company. He's escorting said tree to a distant dying star where, legend has it, Isabel's spirit may be waiting to be reborn.
This may sound complicated on paper, but the film itself is fairly easy to follow. Aronofsky and his editor Jay Rabinowitz do a fine job cutting between the different timelines while also making it clear how the three individual plot threads weave together to tell one grand story. And what's that story about exactly? The most obvious answer is that The Fountain is about the need to accept death as a natural part of the circle of life--a continuation rather than an end to all things. This is an idea that Aronofsky repeatedly hammers home by incorporating circles into the production design and even employing 360-degree camera moves at choice moments. To be moved by this message, however, you have to believe on some level that Tom is in the wrong for going to such extreme lengths to save his wife. After all, Isabel is calm in the face of death, so why can't her husband get it together? You also have to be of the opinion that mankind is foolish to think that we can find the answer to eternal life. Yet it's that same search that has played a role in almost every significant medical development or discovery made throughout history. If we carry the movie's point-of-view through to its logical end, the polio vaccine, HIV-medication and stem-cell research would be the stuff of science fiction rather than science fact.
It's entirely possible that Aronofsky didn't intend to make this argument, but if that's the case, he needed to think more clearly about what he did mean to say. As a filmmaker, he devotes so much attention to technique, he loses track of his message. There's no question that Aronofsky is a brilliant visual stylist; The Fountain's space sequences in particular are stunning to behold. But technique will only get a director so far and, to be honest, his intricately constructed images begin to feel oppressive after a while. A movie like this needs to give the audience some room to breathe so they can think about what they're seeing--that's something that Kubrick and Tarkovsky both understood. Still, kudos to Aronofsky for getting his passion project made. The Fountain may be a deeply flawed film, but at least it is unlike anything else in mainstream theatres right now.