The Fountain was originally intended to be a much bigger movie. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were intended to star, the budget was intended to be $70 million and Darren Aronofsky intended this science-fiction film to rival The Matrix in mind-bending-osity. Some hurdles were hit. Brad Pitt left the film to star in Troy, Blanchett also left, and Aronofsky was left with a massive ten-story pyramid and very little money to spare. The director doubted the film would get made but was so passionate about the story that he released it in graphic novel form.
Eventually, however, the director decided to finish what he’d started. “Finishing” is a theme that runs throughout the final film, made for half of its original budget and streamlined, personalized, reimagined down to its bare and beautiful bones. The Fountain is a highly personal film and serves as an example of what distinguishes cinema from celluloid.
Time and again I have waxed philosophical on the levels of artistry in entertainment. Without the commercial element most art would never entertain more than a few lucky people, but never let anyone tell you that art made for commerce is worth art made with meraki. Aaronofsky is one of the few American directors that is using film as a medium to tell stories. This is the form that his art has taken and he commits to it whole-heartedly.
All that said, The Fountain is an imperfect film. It is, however, a luminous work.
This is literally true, as golden lights adorn almost every scene. They are visual harbingers of inevitable death, established by Izzi’s explanation to her husband about the Mayans’ star Xibalba, light of the underworld. You may not notice this on the first viewing, which is why I’m spoiling a little of the magic. The film is done almost entirely in blacks and golds, an unfamiliar palette in cinema, sometimes beautiful and sometimes oppressing. The lights encroach, bedazzle and hang over our thrice-doomed protagonist. But I am getting way ahead of myself.
There are three storylines in The Fountain that feed into and out of each other. The anchor follows Tom (Hugh Jackman) as he tries to save his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) from the cancer in her brain. Izzi is writing a story about Tomás (Hugh Jackman), who is seeking the fountain of youth in the New World, the Biblical tree of life. He is sent on his mission by Queen Isabelle (Rachel Weisz) in a time of great spiritual turmoil. Meanwhile, in the future, Tommy (Hugh Jackman) is piloting the tree of life to the far star Xibalba to be reborn.
The connections between the three stories are never made explicit and small visual clues only serve to confuse which ones are reality. This serves the mood better than if everything were laid bare because it turns The Fountain into a ballad of emotion, not plot. The iterations of Tom are all driven by dire need, failing to see what they are destroying in service to their passion. Their rage against life’s inexorable end only exacerbates their suffering, demanding, ultimately, surrender or destruction.
This is a movie about grief – relentless, inequitable grief. It is a streak of loss, a meditation on destruction, an elegy for ruined hope.
The Fountain (2006)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Warner Bros. Pictures
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