The Fountain (2006)

The Fountain first published by EyeForFilm, Jan 2007

The 16th century. Under siege from the Grand Inquisitor, Queen Isabella of Spain (Rachel Weisz) sends her faithful conquistador Tomas (Hugh Jackman) on a desperate mission to New Spain to find a lost Mayan temple said to conceal the Tree of Life that can confer eternal youth on those who drink its sap.

The early 21st century. Scientist Tommy Creo (Jackman) experiments with tree samples from Central America, racing against time and hope to find a cure for the brain tumour that is killing his wife Izzi (Weisz), even as she abandons the novel she is writing (entitled The Fountain) and reconciles herself to the coming end.

The 26th century. Enclosed in a transparent globe together with a giant tree and the ghost-like memory of his dead wife (Weisz), tattooed Tom (Jackman) travels towards the Xibalba nebula believed by the Mayans to be the Underworld, in search of the enlightenment that has always lain just beyond his grasp.

All stories, they say, must have a beginning, middle and end, but in his latest film, Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem For A Dream) offers us three interrelated stories set in three radically different time periods, with each story struggling to find (and more importantly to accept) its own inevitable end. What is more, by opening with a quote from the Book of Genesis, and ending with the death both of a star, and quite possibly of the last remaining man in existence, the film seems to span the whole of human history from alpha to omega. And that, according to the film’s central premise that death is an act of creation, is only the beginning…

It takes a certain hubris to begin a film far back in the distant past, and to end it in space in the future – but for all the ambitions of its chronological sweep, fortunately The Fountain turns out to be much closer to the spirit of Stanley Kubrick’s evolutionary enigma 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) than to vapid ‘Alan Smithee’ time-jumper Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996). For The Fountain is nothing less than a mystic poem on life, love, loss and obsession, on the inescapable prison-house of time and the liberating comfort of myth – and it interweaves majestic spectacle, resonant imagery and powerful human drama to haunting effect.

Much like Aronofsky’s earlier Requiem For A Dream (1999), The Fountain switches between its different storylines with increasing rapidity, all choreographed to a plangent score by Clint Mansell. Aronofsky’s regular editor Jay Rabinowitz employs masterful match-cuts and thematic echoes to bind the three plots together gradually into a seamless, fluid trinity that transcends all conventional spatio-temporal continuities – and as Tom is brought ever closer to the illumination that he so restlessly seeks, we too get an increasingly clear picture of just how intimately these stories relate to one another.

Unusually for a film that falls somewhere in the genre of science fiction, The Fountain finds a perfect balance between its human characters and its speculative scenarios. Whether a bearded warrior, a noughties scientist or a shaven-headed astronaut, the figure cut by Jackman is all the more engaging for his consistently quixotic flaws, as he willingly exiles himself from life in his relentless quest for its hidden truths.

In the less central part of his wiser partner, Weisz is the very embodiment of grace, and even when playing only a spectral memory she shows greater substance than most Hollywood actresses can muster in more solid roles. Meanwhile, enhanced images of microscopic organisms form the basis of the golden nebula Xibalba’s appearance, and Tom’s snow-globe-like biosphere has been stripped of all signs of technology – an organic aesthetic that underscores the sense this is the journey of a troubled soul into inner as much as outer space. Quite simply, these sequences are some of the most abstractly beautiful realisations of cosmic travel ever committed to celluloid.

Lastly, it is a pleasing irony that in a film about an unfinished story there should be not just one but three resolutions that explode on the screen, each one informing the significance of the others in an indissoluble narrative union that touches upon some of the most vital themes of human experience. And so, unlike that other current release featuring Mayan language and lore – Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) – this film really does feel like a revelation, as humbling as it is exhilarating to behold. Seldom in cinema has eschatology been treated with such intelligence, or inspired such aching awe.

So take in the heady draughts of The Fountain, and get ready for a trip towards the outer limits of mortality.

© Anton Bitel