“The Fountain” is a polarizing movie that will frustrate the more practical moviegoer with the least amount of forward dramatic movement of any Hollywood film in recent memory. That said, it bravely flaunts its artistic qualities by showcasing the power of poetic imagery and daring to wear its sentimental heart on its sleeve.
Dramatic conflict is what we go to the movies for. We want to see the protagonist get into and out of tight jams, overcoming impossible odds. Whether it centers on a relationship, a sports match, or a disaster of epic proportions, we crave conflict and resolution.
It isn’t often that we go to the movie theater to see an impressionistic painting come to life. That is why writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain”—just such an impressionistic film, with death as its muse—sticks out so confidently from the current crop of…well, anything.
Hugh Jackman plays a Spanish conquistador in search of the Fountain of Youth for Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz, bathed constantly in angelic white light) in the 16th century. He also plays Tommy Creo, a brilliant doctor blinded by his commitment to save his cancer-inflicted wife Izzi (Weisz again, dressed almost exclusively in luminescent white clothes) in the present-day. And in some Buddhist vision of the far-off future (the press notes say it’s the 26th Century), Jackman is a bald journeyman encased in a clear bubble, moving through deep space with the fabled Tree of Life to keep him alive and visions of Weisz (as both women from the past, or perhaps not) as both company and affliction.
What connects these three time periods is not that these men Jackman portrays are all the same person. Considering the wealth of parallel images Aronofsky conjures, however, there is no doubt that this idea is up for interpretation. Rather, the director’s intended conflict comes from within that of its main characters. All three men refuse to admit that death is the one battle that they are sure to eventually lose.
By placing more importance on the combination of moody music, beautiful images, and rhythmic editing, Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “Pi”) achieves a unique kind of narrative cohesion that defies traditional plot-driven mechanics. Without forward motion or dramatic conflict, “The Fountain” resists consideration except as a whole. In the meantime, the lack of suspense threatens to derail the film.
Aronofsky wisely leaves the heavy lifting to his cinematographer and special effects crew, who used very little computer-generated shots to create a singular vision of the future. Back in the present, however, When Dr. Creo and Dr. Guzetti (Ellen Burstyn) argue explicitly about themes that have already been explored visually, the film skirts too close to the obvious.
To chart what actually happens to the characters in “The Fountain” would be pointless, and a mistake. The plot is deceptively simple, but the conclusions audiences must draw for themselves are far more important than piecing together a chronological timeline. If Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was a cold and ultimately confusing sci-fi epic, “The Fountain” is a feel-good head-scratcher of a sci-fi epic that places death and rebirth directly at the doorstep of love. Aronofsky uses an elliptical structure to showcase the film’s most fully realized and powerful statement—that the struggle to find love and keep it is universal and immortal.