A lot of people won’t and don’t like The Fountain. Booed at its Venice bow, dismissed as pretentious, over-reaching and nonsensical, it arrives freighted with expectation six years since Requiem For A Dream gave Darren Aronofsky entry to the Next-Gen Movie Brat party. He was even late back then, with Requiem’s OTT, just-say-no drama pitching up 12 months after Fight Club, Magnolia and Three Kings stuck it to babyboomers with stylistic verve and invention, stacked with pre-millennial tension. So, no Brad, no Blanchett, no budget (well, $35 million compared to the once-mooted $75 million), The Fountain has finally landed, its bumpy journey set to continue as it tumbles around the minds of those who catch it. Pretentious, over-reaching, nonsensical? You could say the same about its most obvious antecedent, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many people did. And whatever its box-office fate, The Fountain will find admirers just as dedicated; people who don’t view a high ambition partly realised – or a story that demands your attention – as a cinematic war crime. Because The Fountain may not be perfect but it is transcendent.
At its centre, it’s a love story: simple and pure. In the now, Tommy (Hugh Jackman) wants to save his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) from cancer. As she is consumed by tumours, so he is by his desire to find a cure. In the 16th century, Tomas (Jackman again) wants to save Spain’s Queen Isabella (Weisz again) from the Inquisition. As she struggles to save her reign, he travels to South America to find the Tree Of Life. In the 26th century, Tom Creo (you know who) wants to save, what? Himself? The Tree? His lover? – as he pulses through space in a caramel-hued bubble craft, a dying star his destination.
In Aronofsky’s original vision, each time-piece may have received equal weight, but here the heavy lifting is done in the present day; itself hinging around the frequent replay of a wife’s affectionate request that her husband take a walk with her. For all the mystery and spectacle and big ideas at play during its admirably lean runtime, this is The Fountain’s heart and soul: a beat of temper and regret, tenderness and love that is wrenching.
The brief pinpricks of action in the Conquistador sections do cause twinges at the thought of what Aronofsky might have created on a larger canvas, but more important than physical scale is emotional reach – and the production pruning may well be responsible for delivering such an affecting core. The only landscapes are the actors’ faces. And credit to the leads, who twine a bond between each other – and, indeed, the audience – stronger than perhaps the characters deserve: Tommy’s obsessive journey could cast him as a mad scientist; Izzi’s acceptance of Fate could present her as a diffident victim. Both risk being emblematic rather than living, breathing creatures, but Jackman and Weisz find the emotional pulse to put flesh on brittle bones.
She has a luminescence reminiscent of Julia Roberts at her peak – not just charisma, something more, something that makes you fall in love. Jackman leavens varied states of desperation with quiet helplessness. He is a man/Man confronted with the one thing he cannot fix; Canute being swamped by the tide, his journey underscoring a truth that shouldn’t be dismissed just because it sounds like bumper-sticker philosophy: no one ever said on their death bed they wished they’d spent more time in the office. Yes, folks, be sure to carpe that ol’ diem...
Of course The Fountain is more than a grandiose take on age-old aphorisms, but it’s not the confounding sense-shunter it’s been painted. Just don’t sit there and try to deconstruct, so intent on joining each dot (what’s real? Is she the Tree? Is that the same bloke?) that you miss the beauty of the bigger picture. After all, why does everything have to be explained rather than explored? This is a movie to be enjoyed for mood as much as anything else: a movie to float in, just as Tom glides through space (spectacularly rendered through digitally manipulating pictures of chemical reactions and microbiological lifeforms captured by Brit photographer Peter Parks). Dealing with eternal subjects – the inevitability of Death, the everlasting nature of love – may sound like hard work, but The Fountain never feels like a lecture. As Pi and Requiem proved, Aronofsky is a supreme visual stylist, but though there are images here you won’t forget – a Mayan warrior brandishes a flaming sword; shrubbery sprouts in unexpected places – the abiding impact is emotional.
It’s been an epic journey for an intimate result and Aronofsky has proved you don’t need superstars or huge sets or budget-busting effects to make an impact. In fact, all you need is love.