Sunday, January 20, 2008
The Fountain (2006)
The Fountain (2006)
Confession: I didn't fully understand what was going on in 'The Fountain' the first time I watched it. I understood it at a thematic level, and to some extent understood each of the three stories on its own, but I just couldn't wrap my head around how exactly they all interconnected. A little bit of further reading (particularly the writing of the clever chaps at Chud) made it all clear to me; in fact, its all rather straightforward and less convoluted than I initially imagined. Understanding it reveals 'The Fountain' to be a quite extraordinary film.
Darren Aronofsky's film is a labour of love that took years to get made. It actually started production with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as the leads, but Pitt pulled out and the project was scrapped, only to be later resurrected with a lower budget and with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as the leads. Although this seems like a downgrade when taken at face value, Jackman has better acting chops than Pitt and was better suited to the role, and as much as I love Blanchett I can't imagine her being better than Weisz is in this. Another interesting fact about this project is that there was also a graphic novel released in the interim, when Aronofsky believed the film version of the project to be dead.
Explaining the plot of 'The Fountain' is a bit tricky, and I think it's one of those films that needs to be experienced, not explained. I'll give it a shot anyway. There are, as mentioned earlier, three storylines. One takes place in the 16th Century and revolves around a Spanish conquistador, Tomas (Jackman), and his quest deep in the Mayan jungles of South America to find the 'Tree of Life' for his Queen (Weisz), who is defending her Kingdom from the Grand Inquisitor (Stephen McHattie). The 'main' storyline, such as it is, takes place in contemporary times and is about a medical researcher, Tommy (Jackman), who is trying to find a cure for his ailing wife Izzie's (Weisz) cancer. Tommy is so obsessed with his work that he neglects Izzie, who is spending her time writing a fictional book - 'The Fountain' - which is about the 16th Century consquistador. The third storyline takes place in the far future, with Tom (Jackman, again playing Tommy, now in the future) traveling through space in an ecosphere with a 'tree of life' that has sustained him for centuries but is itself on the verge of death. He's heading towards a dying star, Xibalba, which is the place the Mayans considered to be their afterlife and where Tom believes he can breathe life back into the tree. During his journey Tom has visions of Izzie telling him to finish writing her book.
I'm not even going to attempt to explain how these three stories link together; they weave in and out of one another both literally and thematically, and while some elements may be open to interpretation I think the film is pretty definitive about what is actually going on. The inter-cutting works beautifully as they build up towards Tom making a profound realization, one that is depicted both as a metaphor and as reality. The film plays with grand themes about life, death, love, and the cyclical nature of the universe and it is completely earnest about them and wears its heart on its sleeve. Boiled down to a summary its philosophical underpinnings may seem trite and don't do the film justice. Suffice it to say that the way they are dealt with in the film is wonderful and paradoxical - it is both complex and simple at the same time - and really impacts you in an emotional and thought provoking manner.
From a craftsmanship point of view, 'The Fountain' is simply brilliant. It's come in for some flack for its story and themes from several quarters, but I am incredulous as to how people could deny the quality of filmmaking on display. Lets start with the stunning visuals that range from the medieval to the contemporary to the bizarrely futuristic, each era distinctive and memorable in its own right but also unified through a recurrent style of camera work. The production design is also fantastic, lush and full of details that add symbolism and motifs to the imagery. Aronofsky maintains a heightened and atmospheric sense of reality in the three sequences, each of which feels fully realized - the Mayan exploration and combat, the research lab / love story, and the sci-fi space journey could each have been their own separate, full-fledged tales. And then there's the effects in the space sequences, which are simply gorgeous and like nothing you've ever seen before, done using macro-photography instead of CGI. Clint Mansell's glorious soundtrack (already being pillaged by movie trailers) is haunting, one of the best I've experienced lately.
Despite all of the aforementioned elements being crucial to the film, it's still one that revolves around two key performances - Jackman and Weisz. The two of them portray, in essence, several different characters and their portrayals are superb in all respects. In the Conquistador segments they have an air of regal and stoic formality to them, while in the contemporary segments they exhibit raw emotions of love, grief, anger, and acceptance. The future segments present a more serene, bald Jackman on his own in space with only a tree for company and he still manages to be fascinating and completely riveting. The film is written in a style that is more heightened reality than reality, yet Jackman and Weisz never feel anything but genuine. The same could be said for the supporting cast, primarily Ellen Burstyn as Tommy's understanding boss and Sean Patrick Thomas as one of his loyal co-workers.
I sound more than a little hyperbolic, but I think the film really is that good. The relatively limited budget is worked by Aronofsky to its full potential, and in fact I'm of the view that by making the film with a less realistic atmosphere it has been encapsulated in a timeless bubble, which is strangely appropriate given the subject matter! 'The Fountain' is a wonderful film, immaculately put together and full of unforgettable moments and visuals. It's thoughtful and moving and squeezes a hell of a lot into its 90 minute runtime. It's a film that deserves be watched and re-watched. In short, it's fantastic!