[Again, image courtesy of EmpireMovies.com, but beware of pop-unders.]
I apologize for interrupting the STAR WARS reviews, but this is worth drawing attention to now. THE FOUNTAIN is worth seeing before it leaves theaters, and judging from the box office, that should give you up through next Thursday. Not that we've heard the last from it, I think; I sense the stirrings of another BLADE RUNNER-style cult of people embracing a unique and challenging genre film even as mainstream audiences and critics reject it. Darren Aronofsky's latest film is a stubbornly fascinating science fiction drama which, obtuse and po-faced though it may be, demonstrates a stark, elemental beauty, a good bit of thought, and in the end, genuine emotional heft. (Take the last with a grain of salt, as I was off my antidepressants.)
The film takes place in three separate time frames, ranging from modern times to the Spanish conquest of Central America to an incalculably distant future. In the modern frame (which is perhaps the most likely to be "real",) Dr. Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) is working on an attempt at a cancer cure while his wife Izzie (Rachel Weisz) is suffering from a brain tumor. His work causes him to neglect his relationship, but he's devoted to saving her. He begins looking at a chemical compound derived from a tree found in Central America. In the past frame (which is also part of a novel that Izzie is writing,) a conquistador named Tomas (Jackman again) is sent by Queen Isabel of Spain (Weisz again) into the heart of the crumbling Mayan Empire to find the Biblical Tree of Life. Finally, in the future (which may also be part of the novel), a man who may be Tom is soaring into the heart of a nebula inside a transparent sphere which also carries a tree, a tree he believes also carries the spirit of a woman who may be Izzie.
In retrospect I don't see what everyone's problem is. Makes perfect sense to me.
I keed, I keed. It's at least a half hour before you can infer all that anyway, and I may be missing some of the finer points. Suffice it to say, in each timeframe a man is looking for the secret of eternal life to save a woman to whom he is devoted (Isabel promises Tomas that when he has found the tree, she will become his Eve.) Once the central thematic thrust becomes clear, you may or may not be able to work out some of what's going to happen next- it's predictable in a poetic sense, because the imagery is so clearly pointing in one direction. But the point of the work seems neither to be the plot nor the message, such as it is. What we instead have are three variations on a theme, interwoven and progressing towards something resembling a common end.
Despite its apparent simplicity, there's still something less-than-accessible about the picture. The opening scenes are dark, murky, not-very-well-miked (I'm not sure how much of this is the fault of the filmmakers or the people who struck the prints, or for that matter the movie theater), and until we reach the "present" frame it's all a bit vague. Even then, the emotional grasp is not immediate. The one major flaw I would point to in this film is that the relationship between Tom and Izzie is just a bit too generic. He loves her, she loves him, and she's dying, but we don't get a lot of nuance to that. What attracts them to each other? What first attracted them? What problems, apart from an inoperable brain tumor, has their relationship had? I couldn't help but be reminded of other "art" science fiction films with a romantic relationship at the center, specifically THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and both versions of SOLARIS, all of which worked harder to make things more believably imperfect. (And can we have a moratorium on dreamy POV shots chasing a laughing lover in an idyllic, playful fashion? I swear this footage was recycled from THE CONSTANT GARDENER.) To their credit, Jackman and Weisz both turn in strong enough performances that we gradually become convinced of the emotional reality of their marriage even as it draws to a close. (And, to be fair, asking why any given man would be attracted to Rachel Weisz is a bit like asking why anyone eats.)
So the film does eventually get its emotional tenterhooks in, and there are a couple of real tearjerking scenes. It helps, of course, that the film is gorgeous. I wasn't sure about the aesthetic at first- mostly amber and gold with blacks and whites for contrast- but it has a stark and funereal beauty, and the elegant spareness of the compositions helps to keep the parallels of the three stories close, and the symbolism of the images clear. The music score has a similarly minimalist power.
If anything I wish the film had aimed even higher. A greater complexity, a measure of ambiguity to its images and its implied themes could have put this up on a level with Tarkovsky's SOLARIS and Kubrick's 2001. More time might have helped, as well- the film comes in at well under two hours, and if Aronofsky was insistent on making an art science fiction movie with the commercial potential of GIGLI 2, he may as well have gone for broke on length and fleshed out the central relationship and some of the more literally confusing moments. Instead, the film is short, beautiful, and pointed. The cycle of life and death is not for us to defy, and though we are consciously painfully aware of this fact, a sharp reminder can be a good thing.