The Fountain can best be described as a labour of love for director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi). Conceived in 1999, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett lined up to star as its leads in 2002, the film was cancelled at the height of its pre-production process (at a cost of $18 million) when Pitt pulled out to perform in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy.
Apparently he was unhappy with the script. Sets, props and other items were auctioned off and the cast and crew were released from their duties when Warner Brothers shut the project down.
In 2004, however, by agreeing to halve the original budget – from $70 to $35 million – and to eliminate costly visual effects and set pieces The Fountain was, for lack of a better word, reborn.
Metaphysical, spiritual and at times extremely strange The Fountain examines the quest for eternal life by three men across three different time periods. Hugh Jackman plays all of them: a 16th century conquistador, a present day oncologist and a 23rd century space traveller. Each of his incarnations is charged with a specific task involving life, death and love.
The first two time periods see the character of Tomas/Tommy/Tom searching for a way to save a queen (Isabel) and a terminally ill girlfriend (Izzi), both played by Rachel Weisz. The third aspect of the film narrative is where it all becomes a bit ‘out there’. Floating through space towards the nebula Xibalba (which shares its name with the Mayan underworld – a theme that runs throughout the film) in a space ship that looks like a snow globe, Tom sustains himself throughout the lengthy journey by eating pieces of bark from the tree of life – which may or may not be Rachel Weisz’s character, again.
I will admit to being a bit lost as how to effectively unpack and review The Fountain because I myself am still trying to figure it out and connect all the pieces together. It is one of those films that are so open to interpretation that it may enthral you but also has an equally high chance of having the opposite effect.
As a reviewer I find myself in a difficult situation: As the film ended, the chuckles and sniggers I heard coming from several other reviewers mirrored exactly how a part of myself felt; it was nonsense that didn’t deserve much thought. Fortunately, or unfortunately, (I’m not sure which yet) as I began to prepare to write this review and started to read about the film and its production process I found myself wanting to see The Fountain again.
Now, whether providing a retrospective approach to this film review is fair to you as a reader I’m not sure; so, I’ve decided I will give you my initial reactions and my thoughts after having researched the subject.
The Fountain will disappoint many because it is extremely convoluted and layered with subject matter that requires you to think, not just a little but a great deal. As your brain begins to piece things together you feel you have a grasp of what’s going on only to be thrown into the deep end once again by new information that doesn’t fit into the neat picture you’ve constructed. The Fountain is a film that frustrated me exactly for this reason. 96 minutes is not nearly enough time to process what you are being shown. It goes against the grain of neat linear storylines we demand when going to the cinema. In this instance the film becomes bogged down by so much intellectual/spiritual (some will say mumbo jumbo) material that it becomes a chore to watch. That is my primary criticism of The Fountain.
In hindsight, my initial reaction to the film has not disappeared completely. I still have no clearly defined concept/theory of what happens concerning its themes or how the three parallel stories intercut exactly. However, after reading about how the film was developed (the space setting was developed by taking macro photographs of chemical reactions in a petri dish) and glimpsing the dedication of Aronofsky as a filmmaker I have a new-found respect for the film.
Darren Aronofsky exhibits qualities and utilizes techniques that need to be seen more in feature films. Be it the thematic linking of each separate storyline by the use of a limited (gold, orange and earth tones) colour palette, his commitment to use as little CGI as possible or the absolutely brilliant performance he gets out of Hugh Jackman (I won’t hesitate to say this is his best dramatic performance to date), The Fountain is a film that has grown on me.
Go into the cinema knowing full well that The Fountain is not your usual movie experience, embrace what you are shown before thinking about it completely (put off making your final judgment while in your seat) and then I’m certain you will see what I have only just begun to realise. It is a tough film to get into and, as such, I suspect it will probably do better on DVD than on circuit simply because it can be re-watched and unpacked with greater ease. But it is also one that will reward you visually almost immediately (it is beautifully produced) and possibly spiritually and mentally once you’ve had time to digest it.
As for my thoughts on what it’s all about? Well, I view the first two narratives as what they are, stories about a conquistador and an oncologist. The third, however, is in my opinion not a time period at all but rather the state that Isabel/Izzi and Tomas/Tommy find themselves in after death. It is the journey into the next life. Feel free to come to your own conclusions.