WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Over the course of a thousand years, a traveller called Tomas or Tommy crops up in three diverse scenarios: as a Spanish Conquistador, sent out to Mayan lands to seek out a Tree of Life and save Spain for its Queen; as a doctor racing to find a cure for his beloved, dying wife by using a compound derived from the tree; and as a traveller through space with the tree, voyaging towards a nebula where he can be reunited with his lost love.
Having directed Pi and the quite brilliant Requiem for a Dream, the studios could hardly be blamed for saying yes to whatever Darren Aronofsky planned to do next, especially with Brad Pitt as part of the package. However, when a couple of years had gone by and the same studios had waved goodbye to both Pitt and a lot of money without much result, they must have been rather anxious about what sort of film they were going to get. I doubt their anxiety would have been much reduced by viewing the finished product.
I can’t say too much more about the plot than the description above. The present day storyline sees Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) devoting so much time to finding a cure for his dying wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) that their personal life suffers and his boss (played by Ellen Burstyn) despairs. While Tommy is heartbroken by the prospect of losing his wife, Izzi herself appears resigned to her fate. She gives Tommy a book she has written called The Fountain, a story of a Conquistador in Spain which reflects her reading on Mayan mythology, and as Tommy reads the book it is also recreated for us, with Jackman as Conquistador Tomas and Weisz as Isabel of Spain. However, the book is unfinished, and as Izzi’s health deteriorates she orders her husband to complete it. In the final part of the jigsaw, a bald-headed Jackman (plus a tree, and projections of Izzi) travels across the heavens towards a nebula supposed by the Mayans to bring death and rebirth, with the hope of an eternal reunion with Izzi: but is this Tommy’s imagination finishing Izzi’s story or reality, Tommy’s life sustained by the research he undertook trying to save his wife?
I don’t doubt an awful lot of things about The Fountain. I have no doubt all the Mayan stuff is based on top research (nice to see them not forecasting the end of the Earth before the London Olympics, for once); I have no doubt that the story comes from a very personal, tender and significant place; and I have no doubt that everyone concerned made every effort to craft the film – it often looks magnificent and glows like no other film I’ve seen. However, The Fountain left me largely cold, a little bored and occasionally amused for the wrong reasons. The story is enigmatic to the point of being underwritten; I wasn’t impressed by the tale Izzi wrote, and neither did I think the ’tree-bubble in space’ worked very well as it showed both the film’s pretensions to 2001 and how far short Aronofsky’s efforts fell.
The Fountain offers itself up to differing interpretations, specifically on the point of how much we are seeing is ‘reality’ and how much the continuation of Izzi’s fiction. But which interpretation is ’better’ or more likely is less important than the fact that the film didn’t engage me enough to make me want to solve the puzzle. What with all the earnest sobriety and often clunky dialogue (whether surgical or spiritual), I switched off and found myself distracted by ephemera (Rachel Weisz’s eyebrows are massive). Having laid into M Night Shyamalan for taking himself far too seriously with Lady in the Water, it would be remiss not to do the same with Aronofsky just because he has done brilliant work elsewhere. While The Fountain never quite plumbs the depths of narfs, scrunts and what have you, it does aim for a profundity that the shallow story struggles to contain.
The obvious comeback to that is ’You obviously don’t understand the story/emotions, so you can’t appreciate the beauty and the pain of the film.’ To which my response is far too rude to print here, but the essence of which is ‘No, you’re wrong.’ I can see exactly what The Fountain is trying to say about love, life and the acceptance of death, but as a narrative it’s clumsy, in contrast with the simple, commercial tear-jerking of (say) Debra Winger’s deaths in (Spoilers!) Shadowlands or Terms of Endearment, or Beatie Edney’s Heather growing old while Conor McLeod didn’t in Highlander. If that makes me low-to-middle-brow, then so be it. I must mention again that the film looks beautiful and that the scenes are mostly realised sumptuously, and there’s no fault with the direction, photography or the score (even if Clint Mansell comes perilously close to plagiarising his own work); it’s just that the detail is lavished on something rather silly and self-indulgent. Luckily, the project was mooted before Aronofsky became romantically involved with Weisz, or the whole thing would have felt more like a gloopy billet doux than it already does.
Though it has its fans, reaction to The Fountain was lukewarm; still, Aronofsky made a strong comeback with The Wrestler, wherein he proved that the dead could come back to life by reviving Mickey Rourke‘s career. As for this film, there may well come a time when I look at it and my heart is caught up in the emotion of it all, and I cry every time Hugh does (ie. constantly). For now, I will say that the Emperor has forgotten to buy any clothes and call out The Fountain for what it is, a glistening but disappointingly lightweight bauble. However, it’s certainly unique, and the visuals alone make it worth a watch on the off-chance that it’s the film that changes your life.