Immediately prior to the screening of The Fountain that I attended, I saw a teaser trailer for Danny Boyle's new SF film Sunshine. The music used to score this was the Ajax Project's remix of Clint Mansell's "Summer Overture," which also featured in the trailer for The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. In both trailers, the piece conveys a sort of epic fatalism; we few, we band of brothers, against these seemingly insurmountable odds. Performed by the Kronos Quartet, "Summer Overture" was originally part of the soundtrack to Requiem For A Dream, the film Darren Aronofsky made before The Fountain. That film too had a strong seam of fatalism but was entirely divorced from any sense of the epic. The original, less bombastic incarnation of the track reflected instead Requiem's air of low-key despair. Mansell has collaborated with Aronofsky on all his films since his debut, Pi, and in The Fountain again his score mirrors and supports the tone of the film. If Requiem For A Dream is about despair, then The Fountain is about hope.
The film is composed of three interlocking narratives that are interspersed out of sequence and at different times repeat, reinforce, and subvert each other. In the present day Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is a research scientist desperately searching for a cure for cancer. His motivation is strongly personal: his wife, Izzy (Rachel Weisz), is dying from a brain tumour. This sends him on a frenzied, single-minded search for a cure, which inevitably brings him into conflict with his colleagues and boss (Ellen Burstyn) who are simultaneously sympathetic and exasperated by his behaviour. Although some of his research using South American plant extracts is promising, it seems to be having unexpected consequences.
At the same time Izzy is writing a novel, also called The Fountain, set in 16th-Century Spain and South America. In it Queen Isabella—her life and country threatened by the Inquisition—sends conquistador Tomas across the ocean to seek the Tree of Life, a piece of Mayan and Christianity mythology that grants immortality to those who drink its sap. In return for finding it she will grant him her hand in marriage. This story forms the second narrative, and the leads are once again played by Weisz and Jackman.
In a third and final strand, seemingly set in the far future, Tommy is locked in a bubble of atmosphere with the Tree of Life, floating through space towards a nebula that is about to go supernova. He is attended by the shadow of Izzy and believes that they and the tree will be re-born in the light of the exploding stars. Is the Tree real? Has he found the secret of immortality? Can he save Izzy?
And at this point we will pause a moment.
Aronofsky first started work on this project in 1999 and in its original incarnation Brad Pitt was cast in the multiple roles of Creo. Although I am one of those who thinks Pitt can actually act, it seems unarguable that Jackman was a better choice. However, Pitt brings more than his acting ability to a project; he also brings star power and financial clout. When Pitt walked from the film in 2002 it effectively ended production. In the light of this Aronofsky decided to realise the project in a different medium: the graphic novel. He started work on this new version with artist Kent Williams but, as he did so, came to understand that he was at heart a low-budget film maker and could make his film, in slightly different form, without the sort of budget he needed a marque-name A-lister to secure.
The outcome is the almost simultaneous release of the graphic novel (original story, different format) and the film (original format, different story). They are not radically different, but there are noticeable changes between the two texts. The 16th-Century scenes are substantially truncated in the film, presumably for budgetary reasons, and the chronology of the present-day narrative is hacked about a bit and extended to compensate. More importantly, though, the graphic novel is slightly more ambiguous about the nature of the far future narrative and the conclusion of the story as a whole than is the film.
The graphic novel leaves open all of the questions I asked earlier in the review. The film, on the other hand, strongly suggests the "far future" narrative is a dream of Tommy's. For example, the "ghost" of Izzy is much more like a memory than the almost corporeal spirit manifestation of the book. Literally, the entire film takes place in 2005, with both other strands internal fantasies rather than external realities. So not a science fiction film, then. At the same time, though, the film's central conflict between rationalism and transcendence does resonate with the concerns of a certain type of science fiction.
This tension is perhaps mirrored in the relationship between the graphic novel and the film. The graphic novel was the closest Aronofsky could get to his preferred medium but it is still a fundamentally different one. The Fountain is overwhelmingly about mood and tone, and the film is far better at expressing these qualities. A good example of this is the fact that at heart this is a love story but it is only through the voices, faces, and bodies of Weisz and Jackman that this becomes apparent. It is the concept of love that Aronofsky is interested in, not its specifics, and because characterisation is not the primary concern it is correspondingly thin. In fact only Ellen Burstyn (Oscar-nominated for her role in Requiem For A Dream) has a character with any level of complexity and that is in a minor role that leaves little for her to get her teeth into. On the page these faults are more evident.
Kent Williams does a good job of illustrating the story but he cannot compete with the immersive experience Aronofsky is able to offer: the combination of Mansell's score, the beautiful organic special effects, the emotive qualities of actual humans, the layering of imagery. Even something as simple as editing can only be approximated in pen and ink. That is not to say the film doesn't bring its own set of problems to the story. Chief amongst these is the nakedness of the mystical images Aronfsky employs. The far future scenes, for example, have an unfortunate tendency to lapse into hippy-ish cliché. Jackman is bald (it is after all the future) and spends much of his time floating serenely in the lotus position, an imitation Buddha. In one particularly bad scene he performs tai chi in silhouette against a blazing background of stars, which is surely inexcusable.
This is repeated in the character that embodies the transcendent in the film: Izzy. Having complained that Jackman is bald I will now complain that Weisz isn't. At one point she decorously faints at a museum, but this is about the only manifestation of her terminal illness. This is made particularly puzzling by the fact that Aronofsky's own mother was undergoing treatment for cancer during the production. In the film the fact that Izzy has overcome her own sense of mortality—she approvingly quotes the Mayan proverb that "death is the road to awe"—means that she is immune to the messy and unpleasant aspects of her condition. Somehow the mental has translated into the physical. This disquieting decision is only exacerbated by the way in which Weisz is shot. She is a saintly, beatific figure who spends the entire film dressed in white and is not infrequently backlit by a holy glow. It should be stressed that none of these problems can be blamed on Weisz. Rather, Aronofsky as writer, director—and, even more troublingly, Weisz's fiancé—goes to extraordinary lengths to present her as an otherworldly angel.
The Fountain had a very mixed reception, which is a polite way of saying it got some bloody awful reviews. Most notably it was booed on its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. It is easy to understand why: through his use of overtly mystical language Aronofsky has opened himself wide to charges of pretension and sentimentality which are only reinforced by his lack of care with some of the more concrete aspects of the film.
I think the conclusion manages to mitigate this, and it is for this reason that I prefer the film's execution of the story. The conflict between rationalism and transcendence is much more compelling at the personal level than the cosmic. Tommy finds some praxis between the two, a successful attempt to reconcile the worldviews of both himself and his dead wife. His vain hope that he can find a cure for Izzy's disease, his rationalist hubris that "death is just a disease," is replaced by a different, more measured type of hope. He finds himself able to accept the humanist message of Burstyn's character. On both visual and emotional levels The Fountain alternates between the crass and the compelling, but it is this final acceptance that redeems the film.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. Amongst other venues his reviews have appeared in Vector, Interzone, and The New York Review of SF. His biography isn't very interesting but it is better than Dan Hartland's.
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