‘The Fountain’ falls short of artsy aspirations

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November 29, 2006

11:27 PM

Too often the movie industry yields to the demands of easy entertainment and profit-turning, offering its viewers factory plotlines and traditional cinematic conventions. Like book publishing, graphic design and the fashion industry, cinema faces the difficult task of balancing artistic innovation with commercial demands. When a film rolls around that proves top-heavy with what the less affected like to call “artsy-fartsy-ness,” it tends to receive mixed reactions. This is certainly the case with Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain.” Starring Hugh Jackman (“The Prestige”) and Rachel Weisz (“The Constant Gardner”), the film offers an otherworldly visual orgy and has made a very unique and innovative contribution to the ever-slighted fantasy/sci-fi genre. Though the film does not attain total success, it at least proposes a different way of treating plot and imagery.

p. The story follows the relationship between a husband and his dying wife. As she comes to terms with her imminent demise and becomes increasingly serene, her scientist husband grows more and more frantic in his search for a cure. His fatalistic belief that love dies with the body leads him to try to prevent her death regardless of the cost. As he attempts a naturalistic conquest of death, she journeys inward and writes a book. The book becomes a loose basis for the movie’s semi-successful, but very artistic, threefold structure. Her tale begins in 16th century Spain, moves to Central America and ends inside the nebula surrounding the dying star that the Mayans claimed as the site of their afterlife. The present-time action is also woven into the mix. Yeah; it’s that weird. Now, this creative setup has the potential to dazzle — but it falls just short. The three sets of protagonists are supposed to represent the same people, but are just different enough to render the film mediocre in its craftsmanship. More advantage could have been taken with the novelty of this refreshingly nonlinear structure. Instead, the film is almost boring where it should have blown away viewers.

p. One cannot help but think that “The Fountain” would have made a better book than movie. Its incredibly complex structure keeps the viewer intrigued, but hardly possesses enough cohesiveness to permit this complexity. Rather than a logical story, however, the film attempts to throw metaphysical profundities at its viewers in a surreal, mystical way. It explores the themes of love and mortality, but fails to say anything new about them. It is possible that the writers thought that the film’s visual and structural boldness would redeem its lack of literary originality, but the boring, at times even conflicting, messages still damage the would-be novelty of the entire movie. Aside from simply recycling overarching thematic concepts, the film also gorges itself on a number of different symbolic and mystical devices. Though rife with this ethereal imagery and utilizing the entire universe as its setting, the story seems very small and boxed-in, offering no universal commentary on much of anything except for the goodness of love and the pain of death — like we needed “The Fountain” to tell us that. One would think that a story pregnant with so many spiritual components wouldn’t feel so darned atheistic, but it does. The tree of life, the immortality of love, the Mayan concept of rebirth, Buddhist monastic imagery, the pursuit of knowledge, Adam and Eve — all are crammed together and interwoven in the space of a couple of hours. Perhaps that’s why the film does not entirely work: there are too many conflicting religious icons to produce something spiritually meaningful. In a bitter sort of irony, “The Fountain” seems to flaunt a murky sort of humanistic spirituality. Though the movie ends with the idea that love survives into eternity and death is something to be embraced, it leaves its audience somewhat depressed rather than stimulated or uplifted.

p. If one can, however, sit back and accept the movie’s bizarre alternate universe for fantasy’s sake, then the rest of the film’s cleverness and beauty are easier to see. Though hugely imperfect, “The Fountain” does wonders with nonlinear plotlines and provides a more poignant, challenging and compelling movie-going experience than one can usually expect from the theater. On the other hand, what it achieves in avant-garde style it loses to character development. If these are such great lovers, for example, then why does Tommy (Jackman) always seem irritated with Izzi (Weisz)? The two seem too wrapped up in their own spiritual journeys to possess the metaphysical connection that supposedly makes their love compelling and drives them both. The clever repetition of motifs, however, partially makes up for this deficit. The golden nebula, plant spores and gold artwork that show up in the various threads of the story connect them all in a manner you might expect from a painting or poem — not a movie. The film’s many subtleties are impressive enough to make one wish it were a book, and the swelling, passionate musical score renders it both timeless and alien.

p. Though it falls far short of the artistic heights it could have reached, and lacks the spiritual dynamism it seems to claim, “The Fountain” offers a rare, innovative cinematic experience.

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