Why, I asked myself as The Fountain unfolded, does this movie inspire more irritation and impatience from me than anything else? It should work; all the pieces are there. And yet somehow those pieces have not been deployed in ways that click or take flight. For a movie that paints the screen with bold images and wants to be about one of humanity’s biggest and most persistent questions — the certainty of death and the cycles of life — it’s all so oddly synthetic and cold. We’re looking at filmmaking, not cinema or even storytelling.
And how I wanted desperately to speak well of this film. Darren Aronofsky, the director, was responsible for two back-to-back masterpieces: Pi and Requiem for a Dream, and had suffered terrible creative setbacks during the production of The Fountain. For a time it threatened to slide into the same limbo as the forever-missing final reel of The Magnificent Ambersons or the near-limbo of movies like El Topo, but he got it finished, got it released, and signed off on the final cut. Whatever is wrong with this film is, I’m sorry to say, entirely his fault. It is Aronofsky’s vision, no doubt, but so much so that all possible spontaneity and human warmth has been crushed out of it.
Under all the metaphysical and stylistic gimcrackery, The Fountain is about Tom (Hugh Jackman) and Izzi (Rachel Weisz), he a scientist and she an author, both wrestling with the impending possibility of her death from a brain tumor. Above and below this story are two other parallel stories — Izzi’s story, set in Central America during the 1500s, where a conquistador (Jackman again) has ventured forth on the orders of his queen (Weisz again) to find the Fountain of Youth. The other is, from what I can tell, some kind of fantasy fever dream on Tom’s part, where he imagines himself some kind of holistic astronaut piloting an organic spaceship — a tree in a force-bubble — towards a dying star.
The movie skips and switches freely between these three stories in a way that is not so much compelling as jarring and frustrating. The biggest mistake, I think, is the movie’s pacing and story construction — not the elaborate visual and thematic parallels that Aronofsky throws at us in each shot, but simple human stuff. We’re never given much opportunity to see Tom sympathetically; from the beginning he’s monomaniacal and closed-off, a jerk with a Ph.D. Even his romantic byplay with Izzi is seen entirely in the clichés of bad romantic filmmaking and not in anything that feels genuinely personal. There’s a repeated POV shot of Tom chasing a younger Izzi through a house that’s meant to be touching, but just comes off as sappy; it’s the sort of imagery that has been ported wholesale out of other movies. (One filmmaker’s moment that does work is, incredibly, a thoroughly shameless scene-swipe from Kurosawa’s Ikiru, a far wiser and more immediate movie than this one about the realities of living and dying.)
Past: A conquistador seeks to bring glory to Spain (and to his queen)
by locating the legendary tree of life and drinking of its sap.
Another problem is the way Aronofsky handles his actors. It’s not that Weisz and Jackman are bad — it’s just that they’ve either been critically miscast or they’ve been directed in ways that push all of the flaws in the story right to the surface. I also suspect any genuine emotion that made it to the screen would not have survived the film’s all-smothering style. When the performances aren’t hitting the wrong notes, they’re being shredded into endless individual reaction shots by the know-it-all editing. The few moments that do work, such as when Izzy confesses on her hospital bed that death no longer scares her, are islands that pass quickly into the distance. It’s like Aronofsky just wanted to get all of the human bits out of the way as fast as possible in any given scene so he could get on with inserting yet another of the totemic images that dominate the movie without really giving it depth.
That imagery, by the way, has become the locus for a good deal of the movie’s praise, and I give credit where it’s due — the film does have a warm, hand-tooled look to it (even in the high-end visual effects) that make it worth seeing on a big screen. The problem is that those moments also clash very badly with Aronofsky’s relentless use of alternating close-ups in almost every shot; it’s like he shoves us that much closer into the actor’s faces as compensation for not making them interesting enough on their own. In the end, everything feels terribly on-the-nose: when we hear Jackman’s conquistador lamenting how Spain has been brought low by an enemy from within, feasting on her strength, it’s not touching but merely makes us wonder why Aronofsky’s writing is so ham-handed. (From within — like a cancer! Get it?)
And after a while, the non-stop interplay of images just gets tiresome when there’s nothing all that human to give it context. Yes, Darren, I get it: the tree looks like the nebula looks like the brain tumor, and the Christmas lights look like the candles in deep focus look like the stars. We don’t need to be pummeled over the head with visual algebra at each cut, and the end of every scene does not have to perfectly dovetail into the next with a matching dissolve. And the music of the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai, excellent as it is, loses its cumulative power when it’s thrumming away non-stop behind what feels like every single shot.
It’s hard not to think the movie’s tortured genesis should have produced a better end result. Aronofsky originally got the project off the ground with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the leads and a $75 million budget, but Pitt split and the plug was pulled. Two years later, Aronofsky rebooted the whole thing with less money ($35 million), different actors (Jackman and Weisz), and a significantly different screenplay. I haven’t yet read the graphic novel adaptation of the original story, but I’m now curious about what has changed. The version we see here has the flavor of something that spent entirely too much time being tinkered with and reworked and fretted over until it became, for lack of a better word, lifeless. It would be easy to say that I would sooner watch ten movies like this that fail as opposed to another Rush Hour sequel, but can’t we aim higher and ask for one movie like this that actually works?