Rainy Sunday Movie Review

This is the time of year for rainy Sunday afternoons at matinees, so today I took in The Fountain. I have been waiting for this film for quite some time. The writer-director is Darren Aronofsky, who previously brought us Pi and Requiem For a Dream. The former is completely bizarre and unsettling, the latter about as harsh and brutal and nightmarish a time as I’ve ever had at the movies. But both proved that Aronofsky is the real deal. He can write, and he can shoot. The Fountain proves that like any artist, Aronofsky can also aim very high, and misfire.

The story we’re told spans a thousand years. Five hundred years ago, Hugh Jackman is Spanish conquistador Tomas, and Rachel Weisz his Queen Isabella. She sends him off to New Spain in search of the Fountain of Youth. After much toil and bloodletting, atop a Mayan pyramid he instead finds … a tree. And dies.

Or does he? Five hundred years later, Weisz plays Izzi, who is dying of a brain tumor; she writes out in exquisite calligraphy the story of Isabella and Tomas and the tree. She tells Tommy (Jackman), her anguished (watch him cry!) medical-researcher-doc husband, that he’s going to have to finish the story for her. Why she calls the tale “The Fountain” instead of “The Tree” is a mystery she takes to her grave.

Or does she? Five hundred years from now, Jackman is bald-headed astronaut Tom, floating through space in the lotus position (no exaggeration), ensconced in a snowglobe-ish biosphere that also houses a familiar tree. This bubble is headed towards a nebula where the Mayans said the dead go, and Tom seems haunted by ghosts of Izzi and Isabella.

The three plotlines intersect in clever ways, and the onscreen transitions from era to era are sometimes splendid. But overall, clumsiness reigns. The medieval scenes are dark and loud (the Mayan jungle) or bright and quiet (the Queen’s chamber), but never carry any weight. The present-day storyline is meant to pack a punch but just doesn’t ring true—our tears during these sequences are ones of boredom, not sorrow, and the strongest presence onscreen at many moments is that of Ellen Burstyn, who has a small, formulaic role.

Then we spend time out in an interstellar space that is golden, foggy, and drippy. The special effects here are gorgeous, just gorgeous, and done old-school style, a la Kubrick with 2001: the tools of the trade here are liquids, crystals, lenses. Real-world stuff. Take trippy backgrounds from Sixties concert posters, dye ‘em in various earth tones, and leave ‘em to ferment and evolve in vats for a few decades. Tom’s bubble flies through that kind of stuff, and all the while, he whispers to his quivering, hairy, dying Tree, and interacts with the dead (?) women who haunt (?) him. It’s here we’re meant to work out for ourselves how everything fits together, and what the Big Cosmic Answer is that will end Tomas/Tommy/Tom’s quest for eternal life. (Spoilers begin here.)

Before the film began, I remarked to my friend how lame its tagline (“What if you could live forever?”) is. Mocking the awe we can safely assume that tagline will never inspire, he said, “But … what if you could live forever?”

From the heart, I responded, smiling an ancient smile: “Who says I can’t? Who says I’m not?”

If you know what I mean, you’ll grok The Fountain well enough. Tommy says at one point that death is a disease he intends to cure (Aubrey de Grey, anyone?), but Tom and his pet tree ultimately discover that in fighting and fearing death, we only prove that we don’t understand it at all. If that’s not a premise you’re ready to accept, you’ll probably find the end of the film absolutely maddening. No matter what, you’ll probably find the journey pretty enough, but downright wearying.

[Two stars on the Roger Ebert Four-Star Scale.]