November 27, 2006

The Fountain

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“Most of us leave the world the way we enter it — kicking and screaming.” These words, uttered in eulogy during one of The Fountain’s more somber moments, serve as an effective summary of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film. Most of the film’s kicking and screaming is done by Hugh Jackman’s Tomás/Tommy/Tom Creo, a man engaged in a 1500-year battle with death. Unable to accept the impending demise of his love (played by Rachel Weisz), Creo journeys from the jungles of Guatemala to the heart of a dying star (literally), relentlessly chasing after the secrets of immortality.

The Fountain opens with Jackman as a 16th-century Spanish conquistador searching for the Mayan Tree of Life. “Tomás” has been given this task by Queen Isabel (Weisz), whose life and throne is being threatened by an overzealous Grand Inquisitor. How exactly the Tree of Life will save queen and country is never fully explained, but Tomás carries on with pathological tenacity nonetheless, hacking through the jungle and Mayan warriors with equal enthusiasm.

500 years later, Dr. Tommy Creo applies the same crazed dedication to his neurological research, desperately trying to save his wife Izzy (Weisz again) from brain cancer. Not coincidentally, the key to her salvation may lie in an experimental drug extracted from a Guatemalan tree.
In his final and strangest reincarnation, Tom Creo is a bald, tattooed ascetic piloting a biosphere through the far reaches of space. Weisz has mysteriously become the uprooted Tree of Life, which Tom is racing to deliver to Xibalba, a dying star and the mythological location of the Mayan underworld.

The Fountain was six years in the making, and one can imagine that director Aronofsky identifies with the determination of his protagonist. A hero of independent filmmaking, Aronofsky broke in with the mathematical noir Pi, followed by his terrifying Requiem for a Dream (a portrayal of drug addiction far more effective than any D.A.R.E. program).

The Fountain is Aronofsky’s most ambitious project yet, and like its main characters, the film has died only to be reborn. Originally starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, the film first fell apart when Pitt left to do Troy. Aronofsky suddenly found himself with one third of his original budget and no star power. Instead of quietly accepting the death of The Fountain, Aronofsky returned to his independent roots. He cast his fiancée Rachel Weisz and elicited the interest of X-Man Hugh Jackman. Most importantly, Aronofsky found cheaper, better ways to achieve the visual phenomenon he had imagined.

Foregoing CGI entirely, Aronofsky enlisted a team of microphotographers who created all of The Fountain’s effects for a paltry $150,000. The result is a film of astonishing, organic beauty. The hypnotic luminescence of the cosmic scenes, in particular, will undoubtedly make the film popular with young people under the influence of the substances Requiem for a Dream warned us about. The film’s symbolic poetry heightens this visual experience, which is rendered in blacks and golds (which according to the film represents the endless struggle of “shadow” and “the morning light”). Freudians will particularly enjoy The Fountain’s plentiful sexual imagery, such as a scene in which the Tree of Life enters the Fountain of Youth.

Assuming you’re not turned off by this hyper-symbolic content, the only major problem with The Fountain is its non-linear narrative. One particularly abrupt transition caused the audience to burst out in laughter. Still, by highlighting the many ways humans try to escape death (religion and science, in particular) The Fountain offers a simple message: by denying death, we miss life.

Bottom line: The Fountain offers a powerful visual experience, but those with little patience for unconventional narratives may find themselves frustrated with the film. If you’re only going to see one film exploring death and rebirth this season, I would recommend spending your $8 on Casino Royale instead.