Review: “The Fountain”

Profoundly personal, “The Fountain” is a somewhat visionary love story across time that is so gut-wrenchingly intimate, it’s as if Director Darren Aronofsky literally ripped his heart out and threw it up on screen. There’s no apologies here, no simple road signs for those who like formula, like much of David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick’s work it is a film better experienced than understood. Certainly on a visual level it will probably not be beaten this year.

Yet so ambitious is his vision, and so committed is he to seeing it through, that his single-mindedness has yielded a film that tries to pull off many things and ultimately fails to entirely capture all of them. Swapping between three separate time periods (and storylines), the film ultimately short changes one of them (in this case the Conquistador story), and lets another (the future) be more about trippy visuals than anything else.

In the center though is the present-day story, a strange mix of a light science-fiction “CSI” procedural meets a Hallmark Channel movie about a man’s terminally ill wife. Thanks to Aronofsky’s strong writing, excellent directional skills and the utterly compelling performances of the leads, what could’ve been dangerously cheesy melodrama becomes a quite deeply affecting story about a man coming to terms with the cold fact that death is a part of life and has to ultimately be accepted.

It’s tough material, one which Jackman displays an impressive range in. Like Aronofsky, Jackman is obviously committed 100% to the story, so much so that it renders Weisz touching but under written part somewhat pale in comparison. Supporting characters prove merely mouthpieces more than anything else, short of a solid small turn by Burstyn as Jackman’s present-day boss and has a well-developed relationship with him on work and personal levels.

Yet whilst the plot and character development may be a little on the slim side, the film is anything but empty as it explores the themes of love, death and acceptance in ways that often challenge not so much your perceptions, but one’s attempts to understand the story from a logistical point of view. It blatantly wants you to simply go with it which makes for a fascinating journey but one that requires such commitment it probably won’t garner much in the way of rewatching.

Aside from his glorious visuals, Aronofsky displays a good sense of perception. Despite being in three different time frames and exploring three different male lead characters (all played by Jackman), it never gets confusing as to which era we’re in. The film is also filled with clever links between the three stories that work on physical, emotional and even spiritual levels.

Yet it also gratifies itself far too long on some scenes. As much as a great scene like the truly heart wrenching turned touching moment in the bath works perfectly, others (mostly much of the future stuff) seems too obtuse for its own good and at times come off as simply being indulgent. Jackman’s silhouette doing tai chi against a star field backdrop is nice, but that damn Mayan chief with the flaming sword attack scene gets repeated so often it robs the initial scene of its power.

For a $35 million budget, the production crew has done a spectacular job at putting it up on screen. The film looks like it was made for easily twice that amount, with only some of the Mayan scenes coming off a little too ‘shot in a sound stage’ style look to them betraying the slashed costs. The score overuses its violin-backed themes a little too much but is fittingly somber throughout. It’s hard to believe but at 96 minutes it feels a little long, thankfully Aronofsky understanding the film is such a draining and involving experience it would be hard to endure for two hours or more.

The film will draw comparisons with Steven Soderbergh’s touching “Solaris”, a less polished and simpler film, but one which struck with more of an emotional hammer to it. The constant jumps between the time periods robs the main storyline of “The Fountain” of some of its power, making one wonder if something simpler would’ve been more effective. It also poses some fascinating questions of life and leaves many of them unanswered, letting the viewer work it out for themselves.

Ultimately it’s almost too personal and obscure for its own good, losing its connection with much of the audience due to its sheer indulgence and lack of fear in exploring some daunting ideas. A select few though will find this a masterpiece, it’s far more a work of art than a work of cinema – thus your connection with it will be a lot more dependent on your personal feelings towards the various issues and themes it examines.

Even if you’re like me and didn’t fall in love with it, you can easily appreciate the sheer vision, rich imagination and boldness of such a picture. A flawed original masterpiece like this is so much better to sit through than 90% of those successful but generic knock-offs. It might be reaching too far for its own good, but god love everyone involved for trying.