The Fountain Review
Three stories. Three times in our history. Three ways for a man to save the woman he loves. In the 16th Century, Conquistador Tomas (Jackman) receives a message from the Spanish Queen Isabella (Weisz) - find the Tree of Life. While the Inquisition file charges of heresy against his Queen, Tomas sails towards the New World. A map shows the tree hidden deep within the Mayan cities and while warriors attack the conquistadors, Tomas approaches a vast pyramid undeterred by the blood being shed around him. His love of Isabella sustains him. Elsewhere, Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is involved in research to reverse the growth of cerebral tumours but sees his efforts end in failure each time. When a rare compound arrives that has been derived from a tree grown only in Guatemala, Tommy breaks medical protocol and tests it on a rhesus monkey he's called Donovan. Within days, Donovan recovers. Tommy's wife, Izzi (Weisz), is unwell and collapses on a visit to a museum. Waking, she tells him of a story that she is writing, The Fountain, about a glowing nebula she has called Xibalba. Telling Tommy that she no longer fears death, he returns to his lab and the set of results from the experiment carried out on Donavan. Death, reasons Tommy, is a disease like any other. And there is a cure.
Finally, astronaut Tom (Jackman) is cocooned in a spacecraft travelling through space towards a glowing nebula. Tending to the plants that grow around him, he is haunted by dreams of a dying woman (Weisz). But it is the tree in the centre of his craft that occupies most of his time. The closer he gets to the nebula, the more it appears to be dying. He turns the pages of a book, The Fountain, watches the tree die and waits as his spacecraft enters the nebula.
I doubt if there is a singular reading to The Fountain. There is the obvious, of course, in that to truly feel alive, one must have no fear of death, but the various paths taken by The Fountain to reach that conclusion are crisscrossed with all manner of detours, myths, legends, pop culture, metaphysics and religion that all one can really do is to let it wash over us. It has many admirable things to say and does so beautifully but like a prose poem, it can be a curious thing to take in a single viewing. On the contrary, this viewer found The Fountain a film to dip in and out of, all the better to appreciate its ebb and flow of stories.
The films that it seems to share a common thread with are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Darren Aronofsky's own Requiem For A Dream. From 2001 comes the jumps through time with The Fountain jumping forward five hundred years or thereabouts between each of its three stories. Like 2001, The Fountain asks questions about humanity, most clearly the value of love, emotion and of being alive. Finally, it ends with a lysergic rush of colour, light and of space exploding and imploding with its own Major Tom meditating amongst the seeping of oil-in-water that wouldn't have looked out of place swirling behind The Pink Floyd. From Requiem For A Dream comes the question of how low will one go to reach a high. Or, as it is asked here, how far will one go to remain in love. To the New World in search of the Tree of Life? To a break from medical ethics? Or to the end of the universe itself, tending to a tree along the way?
Unfortunately, The Fountain never really answers any of its questions. Then again, it would appear to have only a little-league interest in mythology, heartfelt feelings of love and the human condition, being somewhat random in its appropriation of recurring themes and motifs throughout history. A copy of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces and a ready connection to Wikipedia were probably not far from Darren Aronofsky during the writing of The Fountain. However, it does it look wonderful, providing for an immersive experience from which viewers will take what they want. It could be read, thanks to the presence of a tree, as an environmental allegory. It could be seen as a meditation on love. Or a fantasy on immortality that sees Tomas/Tommy/Tom live for a thousand years in pursuit of a life everlasting with Isabella/Izzi.
Personally, I found it touched on themes of religion, not least what it means to appreciate life but also not to have a fear of death and to look forward to an afterlife when one is, in a Heaven or variant thereof, reunited with loved ones once again. A question often asked of Catholicism and the broader church of Christianity is that if Heaven is so wonderful, why would anyone destined for a life in the hereafter suffer in the here and now. The answer, as elliptical as it often is with religion, is that life must also be appreciated often without regard to what comes along in it. It is Izzi who best explains this in The Fountain. While Tommy works, it is she that asks him to walk with her on the first snowfall of winter, who asks him to spend time with her and who marvels at the ancient Mayan artifacts seen in a modern-day museum. It is Izzi who says that she is not frightened of dying and, finally, it is Izzi who, in a ghostly vision, admonishes Tom for not accepting death even as it surrounds him. Unfortunately, such a calm tone as regards love and death is out of sorts with the often frenetic visual tone of The Fountain, which may be paced a good deal slower than Requiem For A Dream but still comes with the Inquisition, madness, monkey brains and an exploding star. And all for not saying very much more than did Jerry Driscoll on Dark Side Of The Moon, "And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do. I don't mind. Why should I be frightened of dying, there's no reason for it. You've got to go some time." There wouldn't be as much between them if Dark Side... had better pictures. But then The Fountain doesn't sound half as good.
As befitting a film that features three separate stories, albeit that they're linked by a common theme, the look of The Fountain varies across its running time. The first story, that of Conquistador Tomas, is obviously set amongst hastily constructed Mayan pyramids set on a soundstage. Everything looks claustrophobic and rather than looking lived-in, there's always the sense that the set dressers were nearby armed with mist sprays in the hope of giving it some sense of being authentic when, in fact, it looks nothing so much as a fashion monthly's idea of a suitable backdrop for their autumn Inca collection. The middle story is set in labs that CSI would feel at home in but the future story is marvellous and looks the best of the three on the screen. A marriage of shining lights, organic plant life and the flow of oil-over-water, it looks like Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun sounds and on a decent screen is a thing of beauty. Expect it to accompany the use of hallucinogens everywhere come the time of this film's release.
After that, it's something of a comedown to talk about the actual DVD release but The Fountain isn't at all bad. The first third suffers more from not being very interesting to look at rather than from a bad transfer but come the flight into space, it's clear that 20th Century Fox have done a fine job on The Fountain. If anything, it's slightly too soft, which is most obvious in the middle story but with elements of fantasy, one tends towards thinking this might be deliberate. Or, at the very least, a method to hide the joins between the live action and the visual effects. However, it is a good transfer, most notably in its not showing any trouble in going between very bright lights and, in certain scenes, being set in almost complete darkness, with the DVD looking fine in either extreme. Fox have provided two audio tracks, one being the default DD5.1 and the other being an audio descriptive track. The audio is fine although any use of the rear channels comes and goes with the tone of the story being presented. There's little to get excited about in the story of scientist Tommy Creo but it sounds much better when Tom takes to the stars with the film's final moments being something to listen carefully to. Lastly, there are English subtitles throughout with one moment of forced subtitles during a battle with the Mayans.
There are three bonus features here, one of which is a Deleted Scene (Life On Ship, 4m37s) that will suit anyone who felt there wasn't quite enough tending of the plants and trees in The Fountain. So much was this like Silent Running that I expected Joan Baez to be warbling all over it - not that otherwise excellent film's finest moment - so could take or leave this. There is an Interview (13m11s) between Rachel Weisz (who's asking the questions) and Hugh Jackman (who's having his tattoos touched up and answering) but they don't have very much to say about the film other than that it's a love story and is concerned with death.
Finally, there's a Making Of that's stretched over the original production of the film, which gets shut down, through its new beginning and on to its release. There aren't quite enough interviews nor contributions from Aronofsky in these six featurettes and there's far, far too much behind-the-scenes footage of cast and crew standing around on the set or prepping for shooting, which can't really be of any interest to anyone. Running for over an hour, this could have been cut in half and it would still have felt a little flabby. That said, the first eight minutes, in which Aronofsky explains things a little, are good as are the last fifteen in which Aronofsky and the visual effects crew discuss their vision of the future, a glass bubble spaceship and the psychedelic lightshow that accompanies Tom into the nebula.