LIST CANDIDATE: THE FOUNTAIN (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ellen Burstyn

PLOT: In the present day, a scientist searches for a cure for his wife’s brain tumor; two other stories are interspersed, one about a conquistador’s search for the Fountain of Youth in the 1500s and another about a tree-tending bald guru in a space bubble floating towards a nebula.

Still from The Fountain (2006)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A spiritual allegory told in three different timelines, one of which is set almost entirely in a traveling golden space bubble, The Fountain is far out by Hollywood standards. The final ten or fifteen minutes, when Aronofsky goes all 2001-y, may push the film onto the List. I expect to see lots of readers stumping for this; it feels like a burgeoning cult movie, one whose momentum is still building.

COMMENTS: The Fountain has an extraordinarily tight script, with reflections of each of its three different stories showing up in the others. Rings, trees, and immortality are just a few of the recurring symbols. Some viewers—even a few critics who should be better equipped to parse unconventional narratives—found the story baffling. I didn’t think it was especially confusing (except, perhaps, for the very end), nor do I think that anyone who’s seen a weird movie or two will find The Fountain too challenging to follow. I won’t spoil the plot—uncoiling it is the movie’s greatest pleasure—but I’ll give a single hint if you get stuck. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all three stories are of equal weight; one of them clearly has what we might call a higher degree of reality than the other two.

As hinted, that script is tight up until the ending, where the movie stretches its weird credentials in a pan-religious finale that crashes a spaceship of Buddhist philosophy into a temple of Mayan mysticism to unlock a door to Judeo-Christian symbolism. The lotus position is assumed, conquistadors get stabbed, and trees bleed spermlike sap as a golden nebula explodes. Not bad for a trip sequence, but the visual fireworks play more like a substitute for a conclusion than as a culmination of the movie’s philosophical themes. Back on planet earth, I think a key element of allegory is missing. The movie’s message of acceptance does not seem profound enough to justify the preceding bombast, and it all leads to an abrupt, none-to-satisfying final scene.

Although the glory of the movie’s visuals can’t be denied—the fantasy scenes look like embossed gold foil is running through the projector—emotionally, The Fountain does not always achieve its aims. Weisz is too mannered and inhuman in her scenes as the Queen, and too much on the sidelines in her present day role. Her dying-of-a-tragic-disease-that-leaves-her-weak-but-still-pretty character never seems like a real, independent person; she’s just a motivation for Jackman’s obsession. We sense how amazing she is only by her effect on her husband, by the lengths to which she drives him to travel to the ends of the earth, the limits of medical knowledge, and the ends of the universe. For Jackman’s part, he certainly acts his heart out, gnashing his teeth and steeling his brow as he buckles down for another bout of uncompromising, denial-based medical research, but the performance is nothing transcendent. Emotionally, the film feels a little hollow, taking its theme of eternal love too much as a stock situation rather than something to be demonstrated onscreen. These complaints only take a little away from the beauty of the film’s construction; the movie was inches away from being a great one. I can see what The Fountain‘s partisans see in it, but I don’t feel what they feel.

Critics were about evenly divided between admiring the film for its audacity and calling it out for its pretensions. But if nothing else, Darren Aronofsky is one of the few directors working today who can actually convince a Hollywood studio to bankroll a weird movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…pic’s hippy trippy space odyssey-meets-contempo-weepie-meets-conquistador caper starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz suffers from a turgid script and bears all the signs of edit-suite triage to produce a still-incoherent 95 minutes.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tim,” who [somewhat misleadingly, in my view] synopsized it as “about a guy [looking a lot like Kwai Chang Caine] who is floating through space in a bubble, with a tree, thinking back on his life as a Conquistador and pharmaceutical researcher.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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