Tapping a Dry Well
First off, this is the best-sounding film I've heard from 2006, with a subtle, supple sound design that makes great use of the stereo field to direct your attention. Secondly, it's one of the most beautiful--a truly different looking set-bound "green-screen" film that doesn't go for vast (and busy) pixilated papier-mache-feeling vistas ala "Sky Captain" or "The Lord of the Rings." There is a perpetually claustrophobic feel to it, despite the exotic locales that extend from an ancient Mayan temple to "the vast reaches of space."
And yet....one expects great things of a Darren Aronofsky film--not just in the images, but also in the ideas. Both "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream" were visually and thoughtfully stunning, so one wanders into "The Fountain" expecting to be transported to new places, not only visually and aurally, but within the mind as well.
That's why I found "The Fountain" very disappointing. Though trying to say something profound, it offers up an idea so obvious that it occurs to me only every time I sit down for a meal, and that is: Out of Death comes Life. To make its point, there are three time-lines in the film--the first takes place in the present day as a researcher named Tom studies treatments of brain tumors in a frenzied race to save his wife Izzy's life. He is so bent on finding a cure that he loses all the precious moments he could be sharing with her. She is writing a fanciful book of a Spanish explorer named Tomas (wait, wait...don't get too far ahead yet. I mean, you're right. it's that obvious, but bear with me for a couple more sentences) who invades a Mayan tribe trying to find a fountain of youth (which is actually the sap of a specific tree) for his doomed queen Isobel--the story's a sort of parallel-o-gram to the researcher to wake up and see what he's missing. The next time-line features an older Tom, beneficiary of his research that has found the secret of long life (which involves the bark of a certain South American tree), in space-transit to restore his wife...from a tree... by means of the energy of a star (Xibulba) that figured in the Mayan legend of the explorer...well, everything relates--all the elements fall back on themselves in a self-referential heap.* All the Tom's of the film (portrayed by Hugh Jackman) are after Eternal Life in some form or another for their Queens...but mostly for themselves, while the Isabel/Isobel's (played by Rachel Weisz) know they will never achieve it. It takes him a near-eternity to learn that life is an eternal process (only not individually!) and that death is a necessary ingredient for it. The only original idea in the film is to state that to aspire to immortality is, rather than overcoming death, to deny the process of life and renewal. The idea should be profound, but it comes across as simplistic...and obvious. And dramatically inert. The tag-line for the film is "What If You Could Live Forever?" and the answer appears to be "Then You'd be a Selfish Bastard!"
Still, there is a sense of relief in, for once, seeing a film where death is the inevitable conclusion and you don't start whispering "So DIE already!" underneath your breath (curiously, part of the gorgeous sound-design has the film saying it for you...though not those exact words...frequently through the movie), but it did plant the seed of Elton John's "The Circle of Life" in my head for days for which it must be held accountable. And needless to say, "The Fountain" won't be at the top of the NetFlix list for the Schindler household.
The Fountain" will lose any visual splendor on the small-screen. Make it the cheapest of matinee's.
*"The Fountain" had a troubled production history. Millions of dollars were wasted in the first attempt at it (when it starred *shudder* Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett...hmmm, now, they're in "Babel"). One can only wonder if, when re-started with half its original budget, whole sections of the screen-story that might have given it depth, were ash-canned (I haven't read Aronofsky's graphic novel, which ala Neil Gaiman's "Signal to Noise" might be closer to his original vision) which is a pity. But I don't know. Aronofsky was supposedly inspired to attempt this film by "The Matrix," which is just one more thing that overrated geek-flick needs to answer for.