Stars and planets constantly move, but even a thousand years ago they looked the same from earth, inspiring countless mythologies to adopt similar symbols for love, loss, life, and time. From the perspective of those stars, humans must appear quite cyclical folk, making the same mistakes and chasing the same dreams no matter the millennia. “The Fountain” is a story of love and loss as from the perspective of those stars. Unfortunately, it seems like the stars spent less time reading Joseph Campbell (author of the mythologist’s bible, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”) than they spent watching “The Notebook.” It’s as mystifyingly impersonal as you’d imagine of a rom-com (hold the com) from Icarus’ point of view. But where it really burns up is how discernible it all is once you sweep up the mythic pretension of a three thousand year story and put what’s left back on its cramped, 96-minute shelf.
The story (though there is no plot) is about three versions of Tom, all played by Hugh Jackman. The first is a conquistador called Tomas who ventures into the South American jungle to find the Mayans’ Tree of Life for his queen, Isabella (Rachel Weisz). She believes it will resurrect Spain from its Inquisition and bring her an eternity with her heroic lover. The second incarnation is bald and Buddha-like, who floats in a glass globe through a nebula and meditates beneath a tree. I’ll call this one Major Tom (not just because he’s in space but also because there’s nothing he can do). Last is Tom Prime, a real doctor gritting his teeth through drug trials he hopes will cure his wife Izzy (also Weisz) of her brain tumor.
These threads do not intersect in any linear or non-linear way, but occupy the same space simultaneously (a contradiction in physics, nut not necessarily in movies). Its universes collude primarily through match cuts, such as an overhead surgery light becoming a nebula or Izzy’s warm neck hairs the bristles on the Tree of Life. Like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a film about themes and not characters, “The Fountain” has plot and players that are really only symbols of these. Aronofsky strives after a collusion of primal imagery that would sell Tom Prime’s plight to save his wife (the film’s only “reality”) as the timeless quest for immortality and then, failing that inevitably, enlightenment. Tomas’ story unfolds in the chapters of Izzy’s memoir, called “The Fountain,” wherein her husband, cast as an historic hero, strives after immortality while his queen waits abroad. Major Tom interstices these as the logical conclusion for hardened left-brainer Tom Prime to write when his wife asks him to finish the book for her.
“The Fountain” invites interpretation. In my quest to summarize the story above, all I have really done is transcribe my perspective. I could see someone saying that Major Tom is real and the other stories are a kind of channeled collective memory as he passes in his bubble into the nebula (the same that Izzy observes from rooftop and which Tomas observes as Xibalba, the Mayan land of spirits). It could also be that none of the Toms are real, and this is merely an exertive pictorial journey through the stages of grief. But since no evidence in the film suggests that Major Tom is real or Tom Prime is not, I stand by my original summary.
And that’s the real issue with “The Fountain”: it acts for all the worlds like it’s a complex masterpiece worthy of study, but really it’s very simple. As soon as they introduce the book that shares the film’s title it even becomes a bit boneheaded. You might expect a movie that spans thousands of years and three timelines but lasts only 96 minutes to chinse on thematic resonance, but when Major Tom becomes a computer-generated swirl of meditation imagery it gets downright tinny.
Tom Prime fairs no better. Too many times, Aronofsky seems to cut for cutting’s sake, to repeat images and scenarios for no particular reason. The try try again approach to Tom Prime’s memories can certainly cause sensory confusion (if that was the goal), but without the grace with which Kubrick leaves you bent and stirred and awed, the repeated images are not so much the imagistic sonnets they imagine themselves to be as Aronofsky flapping his thematic gums.
His visual style seems to have more direction. Muted contrast and heavy golds surrounded by negative space make the whole thing feel surreally like a Renaissance painting, like if most movies are layered on a white canvas “The Fountain” builds on warm and inviting blackness. The images are occasionally graceful, even awe-inspiring (the Major Tom sections before the swirling particularly play out with a kind of natural reverence that reminds me, biosphere and all, of Douglas Trumbull’s effects work in “Silent Running”). They’re just always followed by shots of harsh bloom lighting or a cut that has no sense of its thematic relevance. Anyone who sat through the similarly disjunctive “Slaughterhouse Five” or “2001” with someone who complained that the movie was stupid because it was slow and confusing may know now how they feel, because “The Fountain” makes everyone into that person.
All movies strive to endure in the viewer’s mind as a kind of myth of sound and imagery. “The Fountain” just makes it really obvious that that’s what it wants to do. Aronofsky has enough pretension for the story he strives to tell, but so much sterile literality in its symbols that I might believe he was Tom Prime himself, thinking like a scientist about a love odyssey that should just let itself be science fiction if wonder is its aim. Really, I can’t remember when I saw a film with this much imagination and this little creativity. It’s barely better than if Dave Bowman discovered it was all a dream.