There will been many comparisons between Darren Aranofskyâ€™s new film “The Fountain” and “2001.” This is not surprising, given that both films are thematically driven sci-fi epics that feature: (1) long voyages through space and (2) monkey cameos.
But tonally, the two films could not be more different. Kubrickâ€™s masterpiece is cinema as mathematics, a ruthlessly rational argument that human evolution has been stymied by our dependence on technology. “The Fountain,” on the other hand, is an unapologetically emotional exploration of love and death; it does not try to make you think. It tries to make you feel.
The film is divided into three stories, though each neatly mirrors the others. In one, a 17th century Spanish conquistador (Hugh Jackman) seeks out the “tree of life” in in order to achieve immortality for himself and his beloved, Queen Isabel of Spain (Rachel Weisz). In the second story, Tom, a modern medical researcher, (also Jackman) feverishly seeks a cure for cancer, even as his beautiful wife Izzy (also Weisz) dies of the disease. In the third story, an astronaut (who may or may not be Tom) travels across space to a nebula which he hopes will confer everlasting life to a tree (which may or may not be Izzy).
The characters are achetypes, so universal that their names might as well be “Man” and “Woman.” In each story, the man seeks to jealously protect the object of his affection from her own mortality, from her own nature. “The Fountain” argues that this is a foolâ€™s errand, for it is our mortality that makes true love possible; we can only truly appreciate each other when we realize that our time together will eventually, inevitably come to an end.
But to flatly recite the filmâ€™s theme, as I have above, is to recite the lyrics of a song without its accompanying music. And “The Fountain” contains some of the most heart-rending “music” of any American film in recent memory. Despite its exotic locales across time and space, the relationships in the film seem hauntingly familiar. Tom refuses to accompany Izzy on a walk in the snow, because he is too busy trying to cure her. But she does not want his cure, she has made peace with her fate and now only wants his love. My heart broke, just a little, at this scene, perhaps because I know that I have essentially done the same thing in the past. When the astronaut travels through cold, infinite space in order to revive the one great love of his life, I realized why he had to make this journey, even as I realized that it was doomed to fail.
The film is less successful when it tries for a pompous grandeur that is at odds with the naked emotion of the rest of the film. When Jackmanâ€™s astronaut engages in zero-gravity Tai Chi within a space bubble, I have to admit I laughed out loud. It would make a really awesome late-70â€™s Pink Floyd album cover, but, in the film, it feels out of place. Just as silly is the bug-eyed, Mayan priest who, in the midst of a sword fight, tells the Spanish conquistador, “Death is the road to awe.” Come to think of it, that would be a really good name for a Pink Floyd song.
“The Fountain” is not a perfect film, but it is unlike any other I have seen this year. It has tugged at me for days, and I suspect it will continue to do so for years to come.