Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Fountain

Title: The Fountain (2006)
Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Rating: **** out of 5 stars

For The Diamondback....

A good love story is hard to find these days. Too often, Hollywood’s idea of romance involves the same recycled formula: girl meets boy, girl hates boy, boy charms girl, and a happy ending ensues. On the opposite end of the spectrum, heavy melodramas about heartache and death often lack entertainment value. Reality lies somewhere between these two extremes, and can sometimes be found in the least likely of places – fantasy.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is a haunting science fiction film about life, love, and death – none of which are sugarcoated here. The reality is life is fleeting, love is painful, and death is inevitable, but this film challenges viewers to think of death as an act of creation rather than destruction. The story is not a spiritual lecture, but rather an epic fantasy. With a wildly original script, bold visuals, and powerful performances, The Fountain is one of the year’s most thought-provoking films.

The narrative is composed of three parallel storylines - each set in different time periods, but involving the same two people. All three stories revolve around a man (Hugh Jackman, The Prestige) desperately trying to protect the woman he loves (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardner) from her impending death.

At one end of the timeline, a 16th century Spanish queen faces certain execution unless her loyal conquistador can find the fountain of immortality, long hidden by the Mayans. Centuries later, a modern-day doctor tries frantically to cure his dying wife of her malignant brain tumor. And finally, a 26th century man takes a celestial journey in a last-ditch effort to be with his true love forever. The three stories are beautifully interwoven, but to elaborate further would spoil the film.

The common theme between these stories is a man (all three played by Jackman) unwilling to let go of the woman he loves, even if it means battling Mayan warriors, a cancerous tumor, or his own mind in the isolation of deep space. And each of the men quests for immortality, be it literally or figuratively. But writer/director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) conveys the message that death in itself is a path to immortality. The film frequently alludes to the ancient Mayans, who believed that time was cyclical and death was a means to re-birth. The story does not preach, but merely presents a fantastical interpretation of an ancient philosophy and its relevancy to the modern world.

Although The Fountain is a love story between two people, most of the film’s emotional weight rests on Hugh Jackman. It is very much about his characters’ journey from dark to light, from denial to acceptance. The role requires a lot of emotional depth, and Jackman is more than up to the task. He gives an intense, believable performance that is sure to garner much critical acclaim. Even though Weisz spends considerably less time on-screen, their characters’ love is never doubted because Jackman so perfectly portrays a man boiling with passion and desperation. Forget Wolverine – here is a man who would traverse centuries just to save the one he loves.

Most impressive of all are the film’s visual effects. Instead of using computer-generated imagery (CGI), the director created outer space scenery using photography of chemical and bacterial reactions. The resulting footage was cheaper and considerably more realistic. Other impressive effects were accomplished using practical techniques, while computers were only used for facial touch-ups and set extensions. Few films today dare to limit CGI so drastically, let alone an elaborate science fiction such as this. Even if you hate the story, you have to respect this bold, inventive move by Aronofsky.

The biggest downside of The Fountain is the pacing. Particularly at the beginning of the film, it tends to be slow-moving. Furthermore, the story is complicated and takes some time to sort out. For this reason, it is doomed to be a love-it-or-hate-it movie. Mainstream audiences may not be accustomed to a film like this, but with a little patience and an open-mind, one should appreciate where it succeeds as a science fiction and a love story. It is not perfect, and not even Aronofsky’s best work, but it excels nonetheless.

One of this film’s biggest influences, 2001: A Space Odyssey was largely deemed a failure upon its release in 1968. Today, it is hailed as brilliant and groundbreaking. In the same way, perhaps The Fountain will only earn its acclaim when people are ready for it. And much like its immortal protagonist, this film will surely stand the test of time.