Well, faithful readers (both of you), this may come as a shock to you, but your favorite moviegasm columnist has finally seen a movie in the theatres worth writing about. I mentioned in my first column that I was really looking forward to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, and as it did not contain any direct slights against my mother, I did, in fact, really enjoy the film.
I am in the obvious minority here. The Rottentomatoes numbers have climbed a bit since its Wednesday release, but only to 48% general and 31% from the cream of the crop. But even the bad reviews sound to me an awful lot like the early reviews for Donnie Darko or 2001. Pretentious, unintelligible, takes itself too seriously… all the things I chastised P.T. Anderson and Magnolia for. It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds. (Movie, anyone?)But 2001 isn’t a bad comparative model for The Fountain. Kubrick proved that, with enough visual audacity, it was okay to sacrifice character development on the altar of big ideas. Kubrick was dealing with the evolution of man and his place in the cosmos. Aronofsky has turned his cinematic eye on the inevitability of death and our ability- or inability- to accept it, which is, to me at least, a sufficiently broad canvas to merit turning Hugh Jackman and Rachael Weisz into representative ideas more than fully evolved characters.
The story cuts around between 1500 A.D., where Weisz plays Spanish Queen Isabelle and Jackman a conquistador she sends to the South American jungle in search of the Tree of Life, which she believes will grant them both eternal life. In the present, Jackman is a doctor driven to find a cure for his dying wife (Weisz again) through a South American tree sap. 500 years in the future, Jackman seems to have discovered this secret of immortality (but not the cure for hair loss) and is traveling in a transparent sphere to a distant nebula known as Xibalba, which the Mayans believed was where souls went to be reborn after death. With him in his sphere is another Tree of Life, which he apparently grew over his wife’s grave and believes, according to a Mayan myth she shared with him, that it has absorbed her spirit. He hopes they will both be reborn in Xibalba, but is haunted by hallucinations of her as she once existed. I found it particularly interesting that Aronofsky saw immortality as a road to madness, unlike the traditional vampire and Highlander myths.
I had read a script for this many years ago (back when Brad Pitt was attached), and in spite of the budget-driven revisions, the story remains basically the same, so I didn’t find the plot as impenetrable as a lot of people did. All the time shifting leaves little room for developing the two main characters beyond their love for each other, but this stayed just inside the bounds of melodrama for me. The love story basically serves to give Jackman’s Tommy Creo a reason to search for immortality beyond his own instinct for self-preservation. And let me tell you, if I was going to wake up every morning next Rachael Weisz, I’d want to live forever too.
Whatever else you think of the film, I think everyone will agree that Aronofsky fulfills the visual promise of Pi and Requiem here. Many of the images gave me goose bumps or left my jaw agape simply for their majesty and beauty. They give away a lot of these in the trailer, but in particular the first shot of the Mayan Tree of Life, standing in a pool of water against the setting sun, and the 2500 Tommy’s ascension into Xibalaba are simply breathtaking shots. The haunting score by Clint Mansell (who also scored Pi and Requiem) uses violins and other strings to terrific effect, especially in the future segments.
But this is Aronofsky’s movie from beginning to end. I admire both Pi and Requiem, (as well as his script for David Twohy’s wildly underappreciated Below) but am hardly anxious to watch them again. This film is on a completely different level. Taken as whole, it has the majesty of a symphony and the feel of an epic, even though it’s run time is barely over ninety minutes. It may not be for everyone, but if you find yourself frustrated rather than bored, I would recommend a second viewing. Let all the pieces fit into place so that you’re not as concerned with narrative and let the grandness of the ideas and the symmetry of the images wash over you, and you may find that you’ve had a truly transcendent experience.
Or you may hate the thing. Like I said, it isn’t for everyone. But at the bare minimum, I think we have to respect Aronofsky’s persistence in getting it made, as well as the risk that Fox took in bankrolling such a challenging film.
I’d also like to point out that, unlike most “mainstream” critics, I managed to make it through this entire review without a single drug reference.
See you Monday for the box office wrap up.