Before going to see “The Fountain,” the latest film from “Requiem for a Dream” writer/director Darren Aronofsky, you should probably know that the advance materials are a little misleading. The bulk of the story takes place in the present day, where scientist Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) works feverishly to find a cure for his wife Isabel’s (Rachel Weisz) terminal brain cancer. His efforts become more and more frantic as he realizes a new compound, using ingredients from a rare Central American tree, has positive effects on his test subjects. Creo loves his wife deeply, and makes increasingly insistent demands on his staff in order to beat the clock, as it were, and save his wife.
Now, the way the previews for the movie have played out, one would believe there are three parallel stories being told here, one involving a 16th century conquistador named Tomas (Jackman again) searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth at the behest of his queen (Weisz again), the other a 26th century astronaut (also also Jackman). This isn’t exactly the case. The conquistador’s tale is a product of Isabel’s imagination, a story she writes to help her come to terms with her grave situation. The future story arc, well, there are two ways to interpret that, but I won’t go into them here.
“The Fountain” had a torturous path to walk before finally getting a release date. Stars signed on (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) then left, money was ponied up before Warner Brothers threatened to pull the plug, and Aronofsky suffered a near-breakdown before resubmitting a leaner version of his story. Jackman and Weisz signed on for a discounted rate, and the film came in at substantially less than its previous budget (not counting the approximate $18 million already flushed down the drain).
And while the movie doesn’t look bad, necessarily, it’s obvious Aronofsky had ambitions he simply couldn’t achieve. The 16th century storyline suffers the most, as the scenes with Tomas in New Spain (modern-day Guatemala) have a distinctly backlot feel, and sets that should be foreboding (the Inquisitor’s arena) or sumptuous (the Queen’s palace) simply look cheap. The future arc is much more impressive, simulating travel to a distant nebula (through the use of micro-photography instead of CGI), but both sections of the story really only serve as accessories to the main plot, which is less a fully-developed tale and more an exercise in getting the audience to draw their own conclusions about what’s going on.
Camera prestidigitation aside, “The Fountain” is “Love, Aronofsky Style:” it’s his meditation on life and death – specifically, the mechanisms by which we cope (or don’t) with loss and the ineffable nature of the big sleep – and the persistence of love and memory. Like all of his previous films, it’s visually arresting – if any recent film embodies the concept of cinema as poetry, this it it – but unlike “Pi” or “Requiem for a Dream,” these aren’t characters we’re ever invested in. Aronofsky chooses not to develop them completely, and instead expects us to go unquestioningly on his fantastic voyage. The guys’ ambitious to a fault, and he deserves our notice for the risks he’s willing to take, but – fittingly for a story set largely during a snowy winter and in the sterile depths of space – the end result leaves us cold.