A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

THE FOUNTAIN j

2006, PG-13, 95 mins.

Tomas/Tommy/Tom Creo: Hugh Jackman / Isabel/Izzi Creo: Rachel Weisz / Dr. Lillian Guzetti: Ellen Burstyn / Father Avila: Mark Margolis / Grand Inquisitor: Stephen McHattie / Antonio: Sean Patrick Thomas

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky’s THE FOUNTAIN is one of the more bizarre and polarizing experiences that I have recently had in a cinema.  At differing times while watching it I thought it was either one of the best films of the year or one of the worst.  As I left the theatre my feelings started to definitely stray towards the latter inclination. 

THE FOUNTAIN is, truth be told, too visually opulent and magnificent – not to mention fearsomely ambitious – to be simply labeled as an absolute failure.  Yet, the film left a real sour taste in my  mouth.  It creates individual moments of sheer, legitimate awe and wonder in its haunting and transcending visuals, but the rest of the film – as a whole – is an emotional wasteland.  THE FOUNTAIN is a film that has an enormous amount of talent behind it.  Its largest problem is that it never once connects with viewers beyond its trippy and hallucinatory sights.  It’s simply enormously hollow in terms of narrative and characters and instead becomes too ostentatiously pretentious with its own perplexing themes.  In short, Aronofsky’s sci-fi melodrama is, paradoxically, an impressively mounted disaster.

This film had some obvious hype built up around it.  This is the first film in nearly six years from its director, who wowed over just about every critic – except yours truly – with his stupendously overrated and Oscar nominated REQUIEM FOR A DREAM from 2001.  His first major film, the bizarre and ethereal Pi from 1998, was also reflective of his obvious command over creepy and memorable visuals.  In all of his films you get a strong sensation that Aronofsky is a genuinely strong pedigree of filmmaker in the sense that he has the clear cut skills to present images to the viewer that are arresting and unique.  Yet, with all of his films – THE FOUNTAIN especially included – I get a vibe that Aronofsky hides behind a shroud of showy self-importance that drains away any relative worth that his work could attain.  Like David Lynch, he let's conscious-altering and enigmatic compositions overwhelm narrative.

He has interesting things to show us, but he does not seem to have interesting things to tell us.  THE FOUNTAIN is a paramount example of a director letting his own surrealistic impulses strain his ability to tell a coherent and meaningful story.  Watching the film's sights was a joy, but the story behind those glorious sights is an unmitigated fiasco.  I wanted the narrative and characters to be as arresting and evocative as its imagery.  Unfortunately, THE FOUNTAIN creates a negligible divide in the viewer in the way it lets its penchant for quasi-New Age mysticism and eye-popping spectacle complete overshadow its plot.  Oftentimes, the movie is so strange, quirky, and utterly unintelligible that you feel that you have to be on drugs to make sense of it.

THE FOUNTAIN is a would-be profound spiritual sci-fi drama.  It has subtle echoes of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  Like Kubrick, Aronofsky is able to command our attention at the most eerie and otherworldly of visuals.  From a technical standpoint, the film is an awesome achievement that comes close to dwarfing many other films that I have seen in 2006.  The film is the very epitome of esoteric and idiosyncratic filmmaking, and Aronofsky’s brush strokes are readily apparent here.  Yet, THE FOUNTAIN fails to move us the way 2001 or other transcending sci-fi films of the past have.  It aspires to be provocative and make people think, but it spends so much time confusing and confounding the audience that it nearly becomes provocatively unwatchable.  His film piques your initial curiosity.  Certainly its central theme – the quest for eternal life – is weighty enough.  Yet, Aronofsky lets his film spiral dangerously out of control with a non-sensical stories that are awkwardly cobbled together and fail to enthrall in part or together as a whole.

The film's stories – three in all – are bewildering to the point of dementia.  Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with a film that does not strive to answer all of our questions.  Vagueness can be a good thing as it asks us to reflect more.  However, when a work lacks coherence altogether and leaves us asking what the hell is going on, then that is a sincere problem.  Ambiguity in sci-fi parables is commendable; complete and utter incoherence is not.  All the film’s three mini-stories reflect its overall theme of immortality and the search for it in humans, but none of the stories inspire our interest and none of them develop characters that command our sympathy and buy-in.  Instead, we get series of weighty, metaphysical melodramas told with the mind-numbing solemnity of a funeral wake.  THE FOUNTAIN takes itself way, way too seriously, and watching good actors like Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz parade around for 95 minutes with sour dispositions and in a state of perpetual sulkiness is a real turn off. 

The film is set in both the 1500’s, our modern time, and in the 26th Century (no…seriously).  Linking all of the stories together is the quest of one desperate and determined man to save the life of his beloved by finding the whereabouts of the legendary fountain of youth.  All of the men in the stories are played by Hugh Jackman; all of his loves are played by Weisz.  In the 16th Century Jackman plays conquistador Thomas Creo who is sent on a mission by Queen Isabel of Spain (Weisz) to find the Tree of Life.  The Tree of Life, it appears, has sap that looks like thick, gooey icing sugar that will give immortality to whomever guzzles it down.  The Tree is an important part of the ancient Mayan civilization of Guatemala, who seem to obviously worship the right tree. 

The film’s modern story – set in the present day, I guess – concerns a scientist named – you betcha – Tommy Creo, who is a scientist that is hoping to keep his terminally ill wife, Izzy (Weisz) alive long enough to find a cure for her condition.  Testing on monkeys with a portion of the so-called Tree of Life may hold the answer, but Izzy has become so sick that she may die before he has a chance to prove his theories.  Oh, Izzy is also writing a book on her deathbed called “The Fountain” that details the story of a Spanish queen and her lover, a conquistador, trying to find the fountain of youth.  Ooooh, the irony is so think and juicy here.

In the 26th Century (I had to look that up, it’s never made clear in the film) a bald Jackman plays Tom who is – get this – trapped in a gigantic bubble that flies through space.  No, really.  I am serious.  Alone with him is the Tree of Life…or his wife…geez…I have no clue.  He seems to whisper sweet nothings to the tree like it was his long dead spouse, which only goes to prove that when grown men start to caress and kiss plant life, then that reaches a whole other level of disturbing imagery.  Anyhoo’, Tom is a Zen-like astronaut that is “piloting” his bubble, tree aboard, to the nebula Xibalba.  How does he “pilot” his ship?  Who knows?  Basically he needs to take his bubble to the nebula because when he passes through it something miraculous will happen and his dead wife will re-immerge in human (?) form and live with him forever.  Forever in a bubble in space?  Sure, sounds romantic.

The analogous elements of all of the stories are all of the Toms and their never-ending quest to find the key to letting their wives live forever.  Aronofsky is trying to say that – hey – no matter what time period one lives in, it is love and compassion that overrides all other impulses, no matter whether or not you are a Spanish conquistador, a modern day scientist, or a strange, Harry chrisna-like star trekker that worships foliage.  In this way, THE FOUNTAIN is an intergalactic drama that spans a thousand years and different locales.  On a level of epic scope, the film has lofty aspirations that few films have. 

The problem is that we never connect with any of the Toms or their crusades to save the respective woman in their life.  The 16th Century Tom is barely developed, the modern day Tom is such a brooding and megalomaniacal control freak that he scares us more than he does illicit our empathy, and the 26th Century Tom is just…well…too plain weird to be taken seriously at all.  The film is such an expressionless void that I had to remind myself to care about it.  It’s such a grab bag of loose, spiritual mumbo jumbo mixed with wishy-washy and flaccid spiritualism that borders on inane arrogance.  It's like Aronofsky is announcing to the world how smart he is at mystifying audiences.  All he is really doing is fostering contempt back at him for not saying anything behind his mysticism.

The performances in the film range from sluggish to fine.  Rachel Weisz, an actress I have great admiration for, is kind of flat and monotone throughout the film in her various forms, never really conjuring up a neither memorable nor likeable screen persona.  Jackman fares a bit better, and it's nice to see him branch out into dramatic waters more after his X-MEN life.  His work in this year’s THE PRESTIGE was strong, and in THE FOUNTAIN he gives a great performance in a uniformly flat and one-note character.  His 16th and 26th Century Tom is overshadowed by his 21st Century counterpart, the latter whom at least is developed into the film’s only legitimate and intriguing character.  However good Jackman is, his 2002 Tom is such a brute and so self-absorbed that you never really care if he saves his wife or not.

Again, the real achievements of the film are in its visual effects and stunning imagery.  Instead of using CGI, Aronofsky chose to do the effects for the film by using microphotography of chemical reactions in Petri dishes.  This technique creates some truly bold and beautiful shots that embody a much more organic feel than computer effects could have concocted.  There are no doubts here that THE FOUNTAIN is one of the most strikingly and expressionistically shot films in years.  The imagery is constantly mesmerizing, especially during the film’s 26th Century voyage through the stars.  However impressive the scenery is, it only amounts to gorgeous eye candy that fails to compliment a meaningful and soulful story.  When a film that tackles a monumental themes like eternal life and immortality and inevitable has nothing meaningful or cogent to say, then what’s the point.  The film has no serious truths to impart.  It’s all showy artifice.

Darren Aronofky’s THE FOUNTAIN emerges as one of the most technologically dazzling and impressively mounted misfires in a long time.  Calling the film “bad” is kind of a misnomer.  Aronofsky fills the screen with several memorable and unearthly images that deserves accolades on a level of being visually powerful.  With scenes of outer space, spiraling nebula, and cosmic vistas, he creates an undeniable mood of dread, foreboding, and hallucinogenic pathos with his painterly eye to detail.  The film is one to be savored as an eye-popping odyssey.  Yet, beyond that, THE FOUNTAIN is so stillborn that it fails to create any interest beyond its aesthetic beauty.  The film’s multiple storylines and characters approach new levels of tediousness and ponderous self-importance, so much so that trying to make any semblance of logical sense out of the proceedings seems illusive.  Considering that THE FOUNTAIN was a long time in the coming as much anticipated work by Aronofsky fans everywhere, the film reveals itself to be a troubled, convoluted, emotionless, and a dreary exercise in pessimism.  It wants to be philosophical, thoughtful, and rippling with meaning.  Unfortunately, it’s a work that is more mind-numbingly confusing and miserable than it is soul-searching.  Aronofsky is a gifted film artist, now if he could only reign in his gifts to tell a story worth our patience and attention spans, then he would surely have something profound to bestow upon the film world.

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