Written & Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
The Fountain opens with Hugh Jackman dressed as a conquistador, doing battle with a brood of tribal Mayan warriors at the base of a temple's tall, stone staircase. It seems straight out of Mel Gibson, though with the visual sophistication of Terrence Malick, and I began to wonder why this film wasn't more popular with American audiences upon its initial release. After Jackman receives a dagger wound from a high Mayan priest, a significant moment that'll be revisited several times throughout the film, Aronofsky jumpcuts to Jackman, now draped in robes and with shaved head, in the lotus position, levitating in deep space. He awakens from his meditation and floats into an orb, where he begins talking to a tree—the only significant object in this homey sphere—telling it not to worry and that everything'll be all right. Oh, right, that's why this movie wasn't popular.
But that's unfortunate, because The Fountain is a great film, a bold and successful amalgam of Biblical imagery, Mayan mythology, Eastern spirituality and modern science. (I suppose in the last six years since Aronofsky's made a movie he's been reading books—and not just pulp fiction courtesy of Hubert Selby, Jr.!) The Fountain has three intersecting stories, featuring the same principal actors, that parallel and inform one another; each is set in a different place and time frame—the past, present, and future, presumably—and each deals, in its own way, with the task of facing our own, and our loved ones', mortality. In the present, Jackman is a surgeon and researcher, dealing with his wife's accelerating cancer by denying its finality and trying to find a cure. (You certainly can't fault him for lack of ambition.) His wife, however, played by Rachel Weisz, is dealing with it by trying to come to terms with the inevitability of her impending death, primarily through the study of Mayan legends and folklore. She's also writing a romance, coincidentally entitled The Fountain, about a conquistador searching for the Tree of Life, an arboric take on the Fountain of Youth courtesy of Genesis 3:24.
The conquistador storyline plays as a clever, if somewhat simplistic, allegory for Weisz's declining health. (Had Aronofsky tried to make The Fountain any more complicated, it probably wouldn't work.) In it, the Inquisition is laying waste to Spain, with the Grand Inquisitor—introduced in a gruesome, still Gibsonesque scene of self-flagellation—in the oncogenic role previously played by Weisz's cancer, "an enemy thriving within [Spain's] borders, feasting on her strengths," as Jackman the conquistador explains it. But mixed into these two storylines—the search for a cure and the search for the Tree—is a bit set in the future, or so I've read; nothing in the film indicates the aforedescribed bubble scenes are set in a different time. (Maybe it's in the Press Kit? Or it's just a marketing ploy?) At that point, I think you have to abandon concepts of time and space, and understand that the bubble is a different plane, man, a manifestation of Jackman's subconscious or spiritual life...or something like that, perhaps; it's as though the starchild from 2001 is all grown up and taking an interest in gardening—Aronofsky certainly can't be faulted for lack of ambition, either.
Though I suppose he never could be; both of his previous films, Pi and Requiem for a Dream, are high-reaching, just a bit overwrought and jejune in their sensibilities. (Though I am partial to Pi.) The Fountain, however, indicates some substantial growth for Mr. Aronofsky, and marks what will hopefully be a turning point in his career; it's a work of real emotional, spiritual and cinematic maturity, and though his story and imagery are spectacular, they're captured on celluloid with thoughtful restraint. He recognizes that he needn't add flash, in order to make his points, to the already present power of his high concept, and so the camera is reserved; the editing's tempered; the lighting, while complex and gorgeous, is rarely showy; and scenes fade out gracefully, as though they too, like Weisz, are softly dying. Meanwhile, Jackman and Weisz bring enough sensitivity and passion to their roles to carry the film, keeping it grounded in genuine human emotionality and saving it from possibly falling off into either sentimentality or stiff intellectual exercise.
By expanding his story, which is essentially just a man dealing with his wife's fatal illness, into a triptych mescaline trip through space and time, Aronofsky uncovers more hard human truths than he'd have been able to through any one story alone; by having each section comment on the other, and enhancing the meaning therein, he comes to a reasoned conclusion on the nature of death and loss, and their relationship to love. It's surprisingly, and impressively, sophisticated for a man of his still young age.
Jackman's fatal flaw is that he sees death as a disease, something that can be cured like any other; if over two thousand years of tragedy have taught us anything, it's that that sort of hubris can only be destructive. Meanwhile, Weisz is honestly confronting the reality of her death, constantly telling her husband she is no longer afraid. Death for her, by way of old Mayan texts, is an act of creation. "Our bodies are prisons for our souls," the Inquisitor declares, adding that "death frees every soul." I don't know if I'd trust the Grand Inquisitor, but his brimstone speech still falls in line with the film's central theme. "Death is the road to awe," a Mayan priest tells the conquistador, and over the course of a brisk and stirring ninety minutes the audience comes to face that death cannot be conquered or destroyed; the best we can do is to consume it, rather than allow it to consume us.