In the press notes for The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky
(Pi, Requiem for a Dream) says that he didn't feel that many movies had been made about the quest for immortality. How's that? I can think of a pile off the top of my head: Tuck Everlasting, The Spring, the entire Highlander series… heck, it was the subject of two Star Trek movies (Insurrection and the infamous nadir of the series, The Final Frontier). What Aronofsky should have said is that there are no good movies about immortality, the original Highlander being the notable sole exception. Alas, while it's got ambition to spare, I'm sad to report that The Fountain doesn't much improve the record for "fountain of youth" flicks.
While the rock-'em-sock-'em trailer may have you thinking that The Fountain is cut from Highlander's action-packed, centuries-spanning mold, be advised this is far from the case. In fact, the only real action in the film occurs in the very first scene. The rest of the movie is a meditation on loss, grief, science, and "closure," more of a sci-fi
think piece than the grand adventure you might be hoping for. Article continues below
The story takes place in three periods of time and cuts among them frequently: A 16th century conquistador named Tomas (Hugh Jackman
) searches for the fountain of youth (here, the Biblical Tree of Life) amid the ruins of the Mayan civilization, having been sent there by Queen Isabella (Rachel Weisz
), who's knee-deep in fending off the Spanish Inquisition. In 21st century America, we meet scientist Tommy (Jackman), who is researching brain tumor cures, spurred on by his dying wife Izzi (Weisz). And in the 26th century, Tom (Jackman, see a pattern here?) is all alone, traveling through space to an unknown destination, carried by Aronofsky's vision of the future of space travel: An oversized snow globe.
Though I'm sure this will be the subject of endless debate and interpretation, the three men are not really the same person over the 1,000 years, though I'm loathe to provide complete details for fear of ruining the plot's few worthwhile secrets. Aronofsky would like us to believe there's a huge mystery to unravel here, but it's not really the case. He begins the film intercutting among the three stories with abandon, and indeed we start off extremely confused. But soon it all comes together: Izzi is writing a story about Tomas (which may or may not be based in fact), and Tommy has previously uncovered an "old growth" tree in South America which has impressive rejuvenating effects. What to make of the snow globe in space, what with its cargo of one man and one giant tree? It's connected to both stories and is made clear in due time.
With its central ambiguity resolved, we're left instead to ponder the film's side plots and flourishes, like the meaning of a cryptic nebula light years away, a silhouette doing tai chi, or the sudden vision of the 26th century Tom appearing in a yoga squat superimposed over the body of conquistador Tomas. Often featuring long stretches with minimal dialogue and images of little more than our snow globe floating through space (with the nebula created by a low-tech, though effective, special effect), the film recalls Solyaris more than Star Wars.
As always, Aronofsky demonstrates impressive technical ability behind the camera, and I can't complain one bit about either lead actor, with Jackman particularly expressive, pouring more emotion into his role than I've ever seen him do. It's Aronofsky's half-baked script where the film really falls apart, first trying the patience with its inscrutability then abruptly turning you off with its obviousness. For a film that spans 1000 years and reaches from earth to space, it all comes off as very small and staid. It's ultimately a story that just doesn't smack you with the grandeur it ought to, and many viewers will feel they've been sold a bill of goods here.
While I expect the art house set (and Aronofsky's undemanding legion of fanboys) to mistake the film's early obfuscation for depth, the movie is hardly a masterwork, and I expect most audiences will be put off by it. As for me, I ultimately found the film interesting without being enthralling, pretty without being striking, and somber without being ominous. It's altogether quite average, the type of film a promising student might make if he was given a huge budget and quality actors. Frankly I had thought Aronofsky was capable of much better than this.