Warner Bros. // 2006 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // May 15th, 2007
What if you could live forever?
Take a look at the charge for a moment. It raises a very interesting question, doesn't it? Oh, sure, the answer seems obvious. Certainly you'd say yes. You'd gladly stare death in the face and wag your tongue in immortal defiance. But is there really value to life everlasting? Does an infinite existence equal the same amount of happiness? And what would you do when all your loved ones started dying (and don't cheat and say you'd order up a personal perpetuity cocktail for them as well)? Imagine watching your parents, your spouse, your significant other, your children -- everyone you cherish -- die off before your eyes. Sure, you can believe that fate will find a way of substituting one soulmate for another, but do you really want to spend the rest of eternity locked in a never-ending cycle of love/loss, love/loss? For Dr. Tommy Creo, there is no doubt -- he must find a way of saving his dying wife Izzy's life or he will lose everything, even himself. But is the manner in which he pursues his purpose as horrible as the impending passing of his bride -- and how far will he go to reach his elusive Fountain of Youth? That's the foundation of one of 2006's best films, The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky's amazing meditation on longevity and how everything must eventually come to an end.
Dr. Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman, The Prestige) is desperate. His writer wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy) is dying from an inoperable brain tumor and his attempts to find a cure are failing. Lost in his work, he can't see that he's already disconnected from the woman he loves. Then, just as a breakthrough appears imminent, Izzy makes an unusual request. She has been putting together a novel called The Fountain and, in it, she traces a Conquistador's quest for the Tree of Life. With its power of immortality, the warrior can save the Queen of Spain from the Inquisitor's wrath. Then he and his betrothed can live forever. So what does Izzy want? She wants Tommy to finish the book for her. Our medico would rather continue his work, believing that sometime -- perhaps not now, but in the foreseeable future -- he will find a way to cheat death. He, too, is looking for The Fountain, and he may have to go to the ends of the Earth (and perhaps, the limits of the Universe itself) to find it.
The Fountain is a true work of art, easily classified as such by its ability to amaze and confound, inspire and aggravate. It radiates a kind of inner perfect and cinematic symmetry while it purposefully plays on individual emotions, perceptions, and beliefs. Director Darren Aronofsky, famed for his films Pi and Requiem for a Dream, has often defended this film, arguing that it's a real Rubik's Cube of a creation, a narrative with a single solid core that can be achieved through various interpretations and readings. On one level, he's right. This is just a simple love story mystified by notions of time travel, immortality, and faith. On yet another, it's an allegory for one man's inner struggle over losing a loved one. Still others can see a war waged between science and spirituality, technology and the truths of the human heart. In fact, this film is all of these elements and none of them, a combination of clever scripting and brilliant production design undermined by a fragmented structure that keeps everything distant and detached. Yet it tells one of the most affecting, most heartfelt love stories ever, a devastating tale of soulmates struck by the pain of loss and the impossibility of truly accepting said fate.
Indeed, art inherently contains elements easy to comprehend while confrontational to the forces of reality. It also mimics life while it alters and amplifies it. Aronofsky, working from an original idea steeped in ancient myth and religious symbolism, wants to create as open a canvas as possible. He wants his trio of parallel storylines to suggest each other while simultaneously broadening his overall symbolism and structure as a whole. In the end, he believes it all makes sense -- that everything gels into a perfect amalgamation of emotion and intelligence. For the most part he's right. But The Fountain also requires a few leaps of cinematic confidence. It asks you to accept certain sciences as a given, that the future is as linked to the past as the stars are connected to the ever-changing face of the cosmos. It dabbles in Mayan mysticism, high-tech healing, and an overall thesis that love, time, devotion, and, yes, death, conquers all. What you get out of this amazing masterpiece is definitely what you bring to it. But there are also important facets to Aronofsky's designs that, when recognized, make the motion-picture experience that much stronger.
For starters, one must get a handle on how the storyline plays out. Even to the novice film analyst, The Fountain is confounding, divided into three main narrative strands -- let's label them The Conquistador, The Current, and The Cosmic. At least one of these sections is supposed to suggest reality, while either one of the other two could be pretend, projection, or prophecy. One interpretation of the events of the film has our hero reacting to his wife's impending death in a manic manner which, eventually, leads to a breakthrough. His research into the Mayan legend his author wife writes about results in a real discovery of immortality. Hoping to restore the woman he loves, he takes his cure and waits 500 years, until space travel is perfected. He then heads to Xibalba, a dying nebula imperative to the ancient rituals of the Central American society. It is there he hopes to receive enlightenment, rebirth, and a new life everlasting with the individual he sacrificed everything for. Now granted, this gives all three competing aspects symmetry, something Aronofsky loves in both his visuals and his story structure. But it also fails to take into account several details that the movie takes great strides to establish and explain.
Indeed, a better interpretation resides in the repeated lines that Izzy (our dying heroine) continuously utters to her dedicated doctor husband. "Finish it," she pleads, her voice a quiet conceit of determined desperation. The "it" that she is referring to is the movie's main catalyst, the explanation for what happens in the 16th Century, and what is revealed in the 26th. In essence, Izzy recognizes that her man will not stop, will not rest, until he has conquered death as "the disease" he believes it is. No matter the wonderful words she fills him with, the notions of dying as a beginning and immortality as a state of mind, Tommy wants a real, physical means of living forever. Without ever once taking into consideration what that means, he will strive to cheat the natural order and selfishly serve his own needs. So Izzy makes a simple request -- finish her book. She has purposefully left the last chapter unfinished, and she gives him a pen and ink as a last gift (she creates her works in longhand). She has taken the novel's plot to the point where the Conquistador must decide what to do -- accept death or play God. She then leaves Tommy to tell the last section of the story.
This means that only The Current is real. The Conquistador is Izzy's fiction, The Cosmic is Tommy's. It makes perfect sense, as he is a man of science, struggling with an issue that falls outside test tubes and lab results. His answer to mortality is to avoid it, ignore it, and fantasize over a future where technology can provide any answer needed. Tommy's finale finds his ancient "character" magically morphed into a bald, salient superbeing, a man with all the answers who just needs to pursue his goals for a little while longer before gaining the results he requires. When he realizes that he'll never really get what he wants, that immortality has aspects to it that aren't part of the over-romanticized view he sees in it, the true epiphany arrives, a moment when The Fountain transcends its parameters to say something truly profound. Indeed, once we learn to accept our limits, infinity becomes possible. In a heart that is torn apart by pain and loss, and in a mind strewn sideways by the lack of purpose in a life without love, such a revelation releases Tommy. It allows him to do everything he couldn't before -- like the simple act of saying goodbye. It's a moment of amazing clarity for the story, and the reason The Fountain stands as a stunning work of cinematic sureness.
Of course, serious contemplation is required to make all these connections, especially since Aronofsky isn't providing easy links or obvious clues. This is perhaps the reason why the movie eventually failed at the box office and was lambasted by critics who called it self-indulgent, scattered, and emotionally inert. Apparently, patience and intelligence were in short supply when this movie made its 2006 bow. The Fountain does indeed require contemplation, and DVD is the perfect medium to allow for such consideration. It makes multiple viewings possible (and this film requires at least two) and gives that which appears epic on the big screen a more apparent visual handle. It also reduces the mannered ways in which Aronofsky approaches his presentation of information into readily digestible sections of significance. You can freeze frame, rewind, and fast-forward, trying different combinations of conclusions until you find one that fits your internal aesthetic. There is no denying the man's way with an image -- the film is a stunning combination of imagination, practical effects, and old-school spectacle. With only limited CGI and hardly any real locations, the many intriguing backdrops offered in The Fountain become vibrant vistas that resolutely enhance the story's otherworldly qualities.
And then there is the acting. Hugh Jackman was grossly overlooked come awards time for his turn here, a bit of movie performance so rife with ache and longing that you can't help but feel as frazzled as he. Along with his work in The Prestige, 2006 should have been the year where he moved from popcorn icon to serious star. Oscar winner Rachel Weisz is equally good in a role that must have been hell to maneuver within. Izzy, in essence, is moments away from death, a vibrant, intelligent young woman being robbed of her reality by a tumor that's slowly taking away her senses. It's a part that has to be pathetic without looking it, since Izzy's a character who puts on a bravura face in lieu of the end of her barely begun existence. She is supposed to be more sympathetic to the plight of her devastated husband than her own impending demise and, in that regard, she is excellent. Even in the moments where the movie goes all period piece, requiring the actors to don "authentic" highbrow accents, they never once lose their humanity. It's a key to making The Fountain work, since characterization is sparse and relationship notes offhand and inferred.
Still, The Fountain succeeds in soaring high above the rest of the routine output that Hollywood has to offer by actually using ideas and intelligence to tell a story. It doesn't rely on sci-fi gimmickry or half-baked histrionics to get its points across, and demands that the audience participate in its own process of entertainment. Some will be bored, perhaps even outraged by such an idea, while others will look on the challenge as a chance to play indirect cinematic scorekeeper. But if viewers would simply sit back, open their minds, and experience what Aronofsky and his stellar cast have to offer, if they just let The Fountain wash over them in waves of visual splendor and emotional heft, there really is no need to figure it all out. Some movies are made for experiencing, not fully understanding or picking apart. In the future, when scholars are looking for past productions that have fallen out of consideration, they will pick up on this amazing work and celebrate its excellence. If you missed it when it came to theaters, now's your chance to catch up. With the proper perspective and preparation, you'll be glad you did.
Given a gorgeous 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image by Regency and its distributor Warner Brothers, The Fountain looks fabulous on DVD. The transfer is terrific, providing the perfect backdrop for Aronofsky's persistent playing with shadow and light. The darks are deliberate and the moments of illumination glow with an uncanny radiance. With a color scheme that stays dour and earthy, the various golds, browns, greens, and grays that make up the film's fascinating cinematography are rendered in pristine pigments. Believe it or not, the sound side of things is even more impressive. Driven by one of the best scores in modern moviemaking history (all manner of irrefutable praise to Clint Mansell's amazing music), the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is staggering. The amount of ambient mood and sonic creativity is shocking, from the quietest moments of inner contemplation to epic scenes of space travel and jungle warfare. It is almost impossible to explain how aurally proficient this film is. Aronofsky is telling his story with sound as much as script, and the presentation here perfectly captures that ideal.
It's too bad then that, instead of a full-blown special edition (as both of his previous films have warranted), this film can only manage a remarkable 60-minute collection of featurettes entitled "Inside The Fountain: Death and Rebirth." With each focusing on a different facet of the entire production, the series of short documentaries communicates a wealth of important insights. It all begins in Australia, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett on board, and the construction of massive outdoor sets in full swing. Just as we are learning what the "big budget" version of the movie was going to be like, the studio pulls the plug and Aronofsky and crew are cast adrift. Two years later we pick up with the creation of the Current realm, then go into detail on how the 16th Century was captured. Using an intriguing, multimedia approach, we see rehearsal footage, actual takes, costume fittings, and artistic introspection. Once we reach the final future stage, the secrets to the physical effects are revealed, as well as a brief glimpse at how macro-photography captured the perfect cosmic conceit. Again, this is incredible stuff -- mesmerizing in its access and detail. But The Fountain is a classic. It deserves a DVD package worthy of such a stature.
It would be nice to capture a moment in time, to find a place where happiness exists and love is all around, and hold onto it forever. Of course, we can already do it -- in our memory, our attitude, our personal way of approaching life. But to live forever, to have the good and the bad, the unusual and the dull be the course of interpersonal action without an end ever in sight is so daunting, so beyond the scope of human possibility, that it become completely open-ended -- and rather pointless: the ultimate fantasy without a smidgen of reality. Perhaps, as Izzy says to Tommy late in The Fountain, "Death is only the beginning." Maybe it is an act of creation, the movement from one plane of existence to the next. Or perhaps it's just a necessary end, a way of making room for another human to have their place on the planet. Whatever the case, it shouldn't be given more gravity than it already has. It shouldn't be viewed as finite, but as a starting point for infinite possibilities. Sure, it's sad, but much in our existence is. Learning to cope, to accept, and to not let one passing destroy everything, may be the true gift that any Tree of Life -- imaginary or real -- can hint at or promise. Perhaps it's the ultimate meaning trapped inside The Fountain as well.
Not guilty. Greatness can never be liable for anything other than its own inner excellence. The Court dismisses all charges against The Fountain. As to Warner Brothers' less than impressive DVD package, the Bench reserves judgment in lieu of what will surely be an eventual double dip.
Review content copyright © 2007 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Inside the Fountain: Death and Rebirth -- Gallery of Six Featurettes Exploring the Movie's Various Periods and Settings
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site