Head-trip cinema hardly ever makes it into multiplexes, which accounts for all the comparisons of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain to Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Indeed, both have elements of science fiction, lyrical style, and spiritual implications. Both films are hugely ambitious and visually commanding. Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) brings conviction, grace, and rare beauty to a film that's certainly an honorable effort if not an entirely successful one; his film deserves an audience—times two, as it may require a second viewing to get a fair shake.
A meditation on our obsession to cling to youth and life, The Fountain takes place across three purposefully non-discrete timelines. With feverish intensity, Hugh Jackman takes on Tomas, a 16th Century conquistador stalking the Fountain of Youth on behalf of the Spanish queen; Tommy, a modern-day research scrambling to cure his wife's cancer; and Tom Creo, a 26th Century space traveler hoping to reverse death to reconnect with a lost love. Rachel Weisz plays the constant object of Jackman's affections; she convincingly embodies Isabel, an authoritative ruler trading on her beauty and assumption of divine right, as well as Izzi, a dying woman who nevertheless radiates love and peace.
The Fountain's persistent symbolism and figurative juxtapositions make it more a puzzle film than the wrenching drama it often resembles, but there's room at the movies for meditation if audiences can adjust their expectations. The endlessly clever writer-director teases out meaningful variations on the same symbol, and even masterfully overlaps them. One central image is the Tree of Life, a variation on the Fountain of Youth myth: when Tom Creo rings his arms with tattoos, they suggest they life-lines of a tree as well as Tom's own guiltily unforgiving self-immolation. They also mean something to Tom: a reminder of the ring that signified his marriage to Izzi. The unbroken circle signifies perfect natural design, eternity, and the "finish"—as Izzy calls it—being a new beginning.
Aronofsky critiques the scientific goal to "stop dying" and encourages an enlightened, blissful response to death's inevitability. Clad in a simple garment, with his head shaven, the hermit-like astronaut Tom Creo ironically resembles a Buddhist monk, though Tom is far from being at peace (the film also checks in with Mayan and Christian myths). Creo's encounter with eternity finds the film abandoning the literal, and mainstream audiences may throw up their arms by the time Jackman starts floating around in the lotus position. Dealing with death may not be the most seductive date-movie topic after a long week in the salt mines, but it is one that's universally relevant.
The flip side of Aronofsky's compelling metaphysical noodling is a drama that defies rational narrative. In this way, it remains open to interpretation without the burden of snugly fitting together those puzzle pieces. Are the three timelines an expression of reincarnation? Maybe. Time travel? Of a sort. Or does the whole film take place in the present, as a man struggles to come to terms with his wife's death? She has authored a fiction of the past; is the film's future story merely Tommy's vision of the final destination of his obsession?
Aronofsky's often dazzling technique is tasteful, his tone austere and all but humorless, and the sets stylized to befit a dreamy fable (or, perhaps, a book of zen koans flipped twenty-four pages a second). It's all part of an ultimate Q&A that conlcudes the answers to "What is life?" and "What is death?" may be one and the same. Will audiences care to listen? I don't know, but here's the kind of artful, textured, defiantly non-mainstream gamble more filmmakers should be taking.
[For Groucho's interview with Darren Aronofsky, click here.]