Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Fountain

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Stephen McHattie, Mark Margolis, Sean Patrick Thomas, Ethan Suplee

Running Time: 96 min.

Rating: PG-13

***1/2 (out of ****)

Darren Aronofsky will likely be accused of a lot of things during his career, but no one can ever accuse him of lacking ambition. With The Fountain he swings for the fences and attempts out to make the most thought provoking film of our time. He doesn't, but he comes dangerously close and leaves you thinking that one day he will. You're not likely to see a film in this or any other year that splits audiences and critics like this one. Going into The Fountain the worst thing you can do is prepare to take anything literally. Don't expect a beginning, a middle or an end. Don't expect a protagonist or an antagonist, or even a plot, as we have learned to commonly define one. More importantly, don't expect any easy answers, or really any answers at all. Instead, expect to be amazed and challenged.

Anyone interested in seeing this film (or even if you're not interested and happen to) should be warned: the first viewing will be very, very rough. It'll go slow and you'll have no idea what you're watching. When it's over you'll likely feel angry, frustrated and have little desire to watch it again. These are feelings you'll have to fight because this is a film that must be seen multiple times to effectively form an opinion on. After seeing it three times I came to the conclusion that I'd at least formed somewhat of an opinion, whether I was sure of it or not, and could at least attempt to write a review. Even now as I write this I'm not completely sure. With this film I don't think you ever can be, and that's the point.

It's not a matter of understanding it. There's nothing to understand. It's a matter of absorbing everything that's put in front of you. Aronofsky (who also co-wrote the script with Ari Handel) did something that few filmmakers today would even attempt: a movie about ideas and feelings that challenge you as a viewer. It's been called self-indulgent, pretentious psycho- babble by many critics. It isn't, but in another's hands it could have very well been. Aronofsky's intentions are too noble to qualify for that. Aside from being one of the most visually beautiful movies you'll ever see, the reason it succeeds is mostly due to the moving love story at the film's core and the performances of the leads. They have the near impossible task of selling all of this, and succeed.

There are three interlocking stories told in The Fountain. One takes place in 16th Century Spain, another in our 21st Century, and the third deep in space in the 26th Century. Arguably the most important of the three takes place in the present as drug researcher Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is attempting to save his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) from in inoperable brain tumor by performing tests on monkeys. As time continues to run out for her he becomes obsessed with a certain compound he believes will reverse his wife's brain tumor, even if it means blatantly breaking medical protocol and upsetting a close co-worker (Ellen Burstyn) to do it. Meanwhile, Izzi herself becomes obsessed with ancient Mayan myths about creation and death and is one chapter away from completing her book, appropriately titled "The Fountain."

This book makes up the second story in the film and tells of a Conquistador (also played by Jackman) in 16th Century Spain who's sent on a mission by Queen Isabella (also played by Weisz) to find the Tree of Life (which supposedly holds eternal life), the location of which is revealed on a hidden map. The third story thread of the film concerns a meditative astronaut named Tom (a bald Jackman) who travels in a spherical bubble toward a golden nebula in space and is haunted by visions of Izzi.

That's really all that can be revealed without spoiling anything and I've probably told too much. The stories do come together, but not in any literal way you'd expect them to and the last 10 minutes of the film are a visual wonder not unlike the infamous "stargate" sequence that closed 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, The Fountain shares so much in common with Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece someone could reasonably accuse Aronofsky of ripping it off. You can definitely see the influence, but it's really just a starting point for the director to tell his own original story of love and mortality that spans through the ages. What it does have most in common with Kubrick's film is that it's just as inaccessible upon an initial viewing and as polarizing for audiences. It has to be. When you make a film as different as this and one that dazzles with deep metaphysical ideas instead of special effects there isn't going to be easy access for everyone.

Some parts of The Fountain work better than others It's most effective when it's in the present and dealing with Tommy's struggles to cure his wife, but that's where it should be most effective. The entire foundation of this movie (and all three stories in it) is built on their relationship and if that isn't portrayed just right then the movie collapses. It has great ideas and incredible visuals but the real power comes from the performances of Weisz and Jackman. Jackman is a reliable actor but I sometimes got the impression in his earlier performances that he was putting on a show and trying to entertain us. That's okay, but I was always curious how deep he could go as an actor if he were given a better role. Here he has it. Actually, he has three of them and does the finest work of his career.

Weisz's performance is likely to be overlooked simply because of the nature of the film she's in. It may be off-putting for some to see such a realistic portrayal of a cancer patient amidst a film that could be easily classified as surreal. In a way, she's our only connection to the humanity behind the film and Weisz bravely surrenders herself, never afraid to go to the sad and dark places the story demands. Ironically these two actors were not even supposed to be playing these roles. Originally Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were attached to star, but backed out due to script and production issues. In fact, the escalating budget and Pitt's departure caused the film to actually cease production in late 2002. Supposedly this film was a long, torturous journey for Aronofsky to get this made with his creative vision intact. It was worth it.

While it would have been very interesting to see Pitt and Blanchett in the roles, it's unlikely they could have done a better job. It just would have felt different, but not necessarily better or worse. After watching the film though, you'll likely find it difficult imagining anyone other than Jackman and Weisz playing these parts. Aronofsky initially resisted casting Weisz because he has a personal relationship with her and didn't want to appear to show favortism, or worse, have it destroy their relationship. I'm glad he changed his mind and hopefully we can see more corroborations with the two the in the future because it's a rare opportunity to see one of our most talented directors direct one of our best actresses. He also wrote in a small part as Tom's colleague for Ellen Burnstyn, whom he directed to a Best Actress nomination on his last film, 2000's incredible Requiem For A Dream. It's really a nothing role, but she adds some depth to it, making a case why good actresses should be cast in even the smallest parts.

On DVD and in the comfort of your own home is the worst possible way to watch this film, but unfortunately the only option available. Its mind-blowing visuals are meant to be experienced in a theater, preferably IMAX. I hope you have a big screen. While I was watching the film I wondered how the visuals could possibly look so good and real, until I and found out Aronofsky hardly used any computer-generated images, but instead real close-up photographic images. Unfortunately because the film was a commercial flop it will give clueless studio executives further encouragement to continue the ridiculous CGI route. I'd put any visual effects scene in this film up against anything in Spiderman 3, which was probably shot at five times the budget, and it would win. The visuals used here also very closely resemble those in Kubrick's 2001, which came out in 1968, and you don't hear anyone complaining that film looks even the slightest bit dated today.

Much like 2001, I can see this film enjoying an incredibly long shelf life and gaining fans as years go on. Some may complain Aronofsky's reach exceeds his grasp on this film and I could see their point as the film does try to do everything at once. It's a historical epic, a romance, a mystery, an action/adventure and a science fiction fantasy all compressed into 96 minutes. What a relief it is though to find a director who actually does reach for greatness and tries something different. Everyone may not love The Fountain, but they'll have to respect it.

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