I've been all over the map when it comes to this film. When I heard that Darren Aranofsky's next work would be a science fiction movie with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, I was pretty near ecstatic. Weisz and Jackman are two of my favorite actors, and Aronofsky's first two films were simply brilliant. His feature debut, Pi, might have been the capper of the late-90s indie movement, complete with guerilla marketing campaign (folks spray-painting the greek letter pi on New York's sidewalks). It was the story of an obsessive math genius, incorporating elements of Jewish mysticism, corporate conspiracy theories, and repeated references to classical science and mathematics. It was a sharp contrast to the more polished, studio-style math genius indie that came out the year before, Gus Van Zant's Good Will Hunting. Aronofsky's follow-up, 2000's Requiem for a Dream, was basically the film to close-out the drug movie genre. It's probably the most harrowing English language movie I've ever seen. After that, Aronofsky was on the must-see directors list.
But then, we started getting some bad indications about The Fountain. The trailer looked kind of hokey and confusing. Then there were reports of critics at the Venice film festival booing the closing credits. The film opened very small, grossing only $5 million in its opening weekend.
I had to see it anyway, and I'm glad I did.
The story is best explained in reverse order of its three storylines--in the 26th century, Tom (Jackman) is voyaging through space to a distant nebula, in a transparent orb occupied by him and an ancient tree; he is haunted by the ghost of Izzi (Weisz), a 21st Century woman, whose husband Tommy is a cancer researcher who has been making progress through use of a mysterious botanical specimen from the jungles of Guatemala; meanwhile, Izzi is writing a book set in the 16th Century about Tomas (Jackman, again), a conquistador who is sent by Queen Isabela (you guessed it, Weisz again) of Spain to New Spain--what we know as South and Central America--to find the Tree of Life referenced in the Book of Genesis.
The three storylines cohere very closely to each other (unlike, say, Babel), turning essentially, into one man's battle against Death. You see, in the present day storyline Izzi is dying of a tumor, and in Izzi's book, Isabela is threatened by the Grand Inquisitor, who believes her to be a heretic. In both situations the men are fighting to save the lives of women they love. Future Tom's motivations are more obscure, at first--he mainly seems to enjoy practicing Tai Chi in front of a starry backdrop, and levitating in the lotus position. But he, too, is driven toward a goal set on salvation.
If the Tai Chi and lotus position sound pretentious, you've chanced upon one of the issues some might have with this movie. I think one of the reasons the Venice critics were disappointed is because this film is so...sincere. One of the signature characteristics of Aronofsky's other movies was a detachment from his subject matter. In Requiem, for example, one storyline follows the descent of a senior citizen (Ellen Burstyn, who has a smaller role in The Fountain) into drug addiction and madness. Where more sentimental directors would have played that situation for melodrama--Aronofsky set it to music. In The Fountain, the longing and grief of the characters come at us raw, without any detachment at all. This has all led to speculation that love has softened Aronofsky up--he's engaged to and has a child with Weisz--and weakened his vision.
But if you can get past the fact that this film wears its emotions on its sleeve, you're treated to a visual spectacle in the tradition of Stanley Kubrik's 2001--a thoughtful and thought-provoking film, and a critique of our society's phobia about death. Very highly recommended.