New-Release Tuesday: The Fountain

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

It’s difficult to know what to say about Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. When complete objectivity fails you, I guess, just gush.

In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to note that I first screened The Fountain after having spent the fourth consecutive day at my wife’s bedside in the hospital back in 2006. So the entire thematic thrust of The Fountain—coming to terms with the death of things you love—was, shall we say, arrestingly relevant.

What’s more, one third of The Fountain’s plot centers around Izzi Creo and her losing battle with a brain tumor. Her husband Tommy is a research scientist working on primate studies which, if proven viable, might just save Izzi’s life. Along the way, he stumbles on an exotic Central American tree bark that has amazing rejuvenating properties—though it does not appear to arrest the growth of tumors. Also along the way, Izzi journals an open-ended story of a conquistador’s quest for the Tree of Life.

And here’s where the story gets all metaphysical. When one of Tommy’s study subjects begins to reverse the aging process, it occurs to him that he’s stumbled onto the legendary fountain of youth. The film’s opening sequence, straight from the conclusion of Izzi’s novella, also plays to that legend, as Queen Isabella’s conquistador captain leads the last of his men in an assault on a Mayan stronghold. The imagery, as well as the film’s title, invokes the legend of Ponce de Leon and his search for the fountain of youth.

Oddly, Aronofsky’s film isn’t about the fountain of youth. It’s about the Tree of Life. Melding tales from Mayan culture, biblical accounts, and related religious traditions, the director envisions an apocalyptic future which unites and fulfills them all.

In Izzi’s 16th Century tale, Isabella’s Spain is threatened by Inquisitorial zeal. When a priest returns from the New World with a clue to the location of the Mayan Tree of Life, the queen dispatches her loyal Captain to distill and capture its life-giving power.

In Aronofsky’s contemporary tale, Tommy’s study has run across the bark of this very tree—a tree of Izzi’s imagination. And interwoven with these two tales is the fanciful, impressionistic, and futuristic story of another man’s quest to bring the expiring Tree of Life across the universe to the site of a dying star—where, if the Mayan legends are true, it will be reborn in the cataclysm of the star’s death. Along the way, this future incarnation of Tom is sustained by morsels taken from the tree’s flesh. (Sound religiously familiar to anyone?) Aronofsky’s three stories overlap, punctuated by the progressive revelation of Izzi’s fiction and the tension of how Tommy will complete Izzi’s tale while on his 26th Century galactic quest.

Yes, that’s right. If that sounds baffling, pompous, and preposterous, you’ll probably find Aronofsky’s film equally so. If you find that description intriguing, however, you might just find The Fountain stunning and spellbinding. I did.

Ultimately, The Fountain analyzes our perceptions of death, and our perceptions of life. I don’t think it gives anything away to note that, when he finally fulfills his quest, Izzi’s conquistador discovers that eternal life looks nothing like what he expected. The same is true with the space traveler’s quest: does it fail, or does it succeed? That all depends on one’s perspective—a perspective that Tommy sorely needs in order to deal with Izzi’s terminal condition.

Two things to note, beyond my simple observation that The Fountain is a brilliantly conceived and executed artistic vision. First, Hugh Jackman is simply a revelation here. Playing all three of the central male roles in three different centuries, Jackman fleshes out each with humanity, passion, and subtlety. Each is distinct, yet they are one; and if that’s Aronofsky’s nod to the Trinity, I wouldn’t be surprised. Jackman brings a passion to each of these men that’s hard to beat. I believed the conquistador’s loyalty; Tommy’s bedside grief is tangible; and the space traveler’s agonized plea to be free of Izzi’s final request wrenches my soul. Tommy’s last name, Creo, by the way, is Spanish for “I believe.” Doubt no further, Thomas.

Finally, longtime Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell has composed a score that’s worthy of special mention. In an age when film soundtracks have become so professional that they almost disappear into the woodwork—which, for the most part, is a good thing—it’s rewarding to run across a score that both functions as a character and complements the overall vision. In this case, Mansell’s nod to Philip Glass strikes, so to speak, just the right note.

The Fountain will not please many audiences, I dare say. But those it pleases, it will please mightily. It’s a brilliant (if possibly obtuse) look at the power of life—and the power of death.

You can watch The Fountain for free with a trial of Starz on Amazon. You can also stream at YouTube for a small fee.