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The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky (Dir.)
Review by Rogan Marshall
Warner Bros. Pictures Theatrical  ISBN/ITEM#: B00005JPAP
Date: Nov 22, 2006 / Show Official Info /

The form of The Fountain is thoroughly non-linear, and those who aren't readers and thus used to this usually literary conceit may find it hard to follow three parallel stories, each of which unravels unchronologically within itself as well, to reserve parallel narrative revelations and epiphanies for a climax that ties everything together. In the first story, Hugh Jackman plays a Conquistador dispatched to the New World by the Queen of Spain (Rachel Weisz) to search for the legendary fountain of youth, which, they've learned from an adventurous monk, is actually a tree, growing atop an ancient and closely guarded Mayan temple. In the second story (chronologically), the same characters, still alive in our contemporary present day, are a couple whose three hundred year relationship is threatened by a cancer ravaging former queen Izzy, as Jackman, now a research scientist, races to complete work that may save her. In the third story, Jackman, still alive in a far flung future, travels alone through endless intergalactic space to a distant galaxy, bringing with him the life-giving tree, which incarnates his lover's spirit in a manner that only becomes clear at the movie's multi-layered, mystical climax.

It’s hard to know where to begin to describe this stylish, moving, and fiercely intelligent movie, about which the most salient fact, in present company, is that it's immediately important, and perhaps even an instant classic, as screen science fiction. Aronofsky is often compared to Kubrick, largely for his artist's eye, which combines the ingrained trained classicism of a school bred painter or photographer with a striking streak of visionary psychedelia. His advanced visual acuity brings refreshing originality to bear on the visual conception of SF elements; this movie beautifully reimagines the way effects and design can illuminate genre material. The special effects were all created by various optical trickeries, rather than computer generated; as a specific example, Hugh Jackman's intergalactic spaceship en route is a huge transparent bubble, portrayed as rising inexorably through cloudlike cosmic mists.

Careful, even rigid - if tangibly post-psychedelic - classicism informs the writing as well (Aronofsky has at least co-authored the screenplays for all three of his movies). The Fountain will get compared a lot to 2001 on both grounds: its visual flair, and the maturity of its script, which is almost unique, in cinematic science fiction, outside of these two pictures (those seeking less famous but comparable movies, just to watch maybe, are referred to John Boorman's Zardoz, the screen version of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, and an utterly overlooked movie about hyper-evolved ants called Phase 4, all of which are intelligent SF movies for grownups with lots of psychedelic spin, and all of which, not coincidentally, were produced after 2001, and before Star Wars).

In fact, this is an entirely different kind of SF from the Kubrick/Clarke classic. It's true, The Fountain also like 2001 concerns itself with the great mysteries, questions of life and death and the meaning of love against eternity. The movies share a grimness comparable to that of a religious text, an accompanying cold cerebral distance, and they boast similar visual explosions at comparable semi-abstract conclusions. But The Fountain is not "hard" SF, rooted directly in scientific reality; it is an intimately human story, and its spiritual matter is held to the human level. (In the right mood it will strike the right viewers as extremely romantic; as I left the theater while the credits rolled, experiencing a merely thoughtful and satisfied reaction, I saw a couple, still seated, passionately kissing one another, as if the movie had revealed to them some essential truth about their own relationship.)

In terms of story and form, The Fountain put me very much in mind of the American "new wave" coterie of science fiction writers; if you told me it was based on a literary work (which it isn't), my first guess would be that The Fountain had been adapted from an Edward Bryant story in one of the Dangerous Visions anthologies... not that this movie bears any relation that I can recall to any specific Ed Bryant story; I don't even remember what titles he actually placed in those anthologies, but this movie's structure and tone put me in mind of Bryant more than anything else. Formally it's also a lot like some of Zelazny's short stories, too. The extremely clever way in which The Fountain places its real concerns ahead of its science, and the extent of its narrative omissions (which, along with the jigsaw puzzle storytelling, practically amounts to wild experimentalism, in a wide release movie from Hollywood), are an awful lot like Ellison or Bradbury (the mood, intent, and imagery of its overwhelming ending, which is obviously built to inspire heated discussion in any audience, remind me strongly, if at an odd associative tangent, of the Ray Bradbury story about astronauts harvesting a scoopful of sun).

Generally, in terms of both script and interpretation, The Fountain is, unlike almost any (if not every) other notable American SF movie in the past decade (if not longer), quiet, tasteful, relevant to an adult's inner life and imagination, and suffused with positive energy, an optimism natural to prose SF that so rarely translates to the screen, its welcomeness cannot be under-praised.

All of this being said, I must admit that as an example of Aronofsky's work, a point burned on the curve of his career as a filmmaker, this is a slight step backwards. In approaching a considerably bigger production than Pi or Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky's control of his actors has slipped, not enough to cripple the movie, but certainly enough to remark on (Weisz does not quite match Jackman's ante; the chemistry between them is flawed). It's to be expected that a filmmaker so design conscious and formally focused would find his grip loosen, on the human element; it's actually remarkable when such a filmmaker displays perfect control of the actors too (like Kubrick always did, or Aronofsky himself, on Requiem, his best picture thus far, and a tough little masterpiece to top, let alone directly follow).

Aronofsky is already a remarkable director – one of our best; those who are inclined to berate him for failing to make a movie as "perfect" as his last picture was, should remember that he's still very young (37, as of this writing, if I'm not mistaken). I'm inclined to gloss over the occasional cold moment or quaver in the performances to leave my praise of The Fountain as a remarkable work within its genre largely unqualified. Really, the best thing about The Fountain, is that Aronofsky is, indeed, quite young; the jaw-dropping ease with which he's shouldered all this movie's extreme ambition as science fiction, makes it pretty clear that he'll return to the genre, and when he does, we can expect him to top himself.

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