Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (Warner Bros.) is, by any standard, a grand folly of a movie. In his first attempt at getting the thing made, beginning in 2000, Aronofsky wasted $18 million, built a Mayan pyramid that sat moldering in Australia, and cast and then lost Brad Pitt as the film’s time-traveling hero. Countless script rewrites and budget cuts later, the 95-minute result starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz provoked both a standing ovation and a shoving match between two journalists at the Venice Film Festival.
Aronofsky cultists have rallied around the movie—one IMDB user review called it “the best movie of the 21st century.” And some critics agree. On Rotten Tomatoes, a Web site that compiles film reviews, The Fountain, as of this morning, had a rating of precisely 50 percent. The Houston Chronicle’s critic called it a “sublime metaphysical head trip” and a “transcendent work of art,” while the Hollywood Reporter labeled it a “flatulent dissertation” that raised no question deeper than, “Zardoz, anyone?”
With its transhistorical narrative, gold-burnished palette, and mind-blowing special effects, The Fountain couldn’t seem more different from Aronofsky’s first film, Pi (1998), a $60,000 sleeper shot in high-contrast black-and-white on the streets of Brooklyn. But The Fountain’stragic flaw—and to this untranscendent critic’s eye, the movie is pretty tragically flawed—is already present in Pi, as well as in the second of Aronofsky’s three movies, Requiem for a Dream (2000).
All three movies tell the story of a romantic who pursues, with self-destructive ferocity, some form of the absolute: Sean Gullette’s paranoid mathematician in Pi, Ellen Burstyn’s speed-addled housewife in Requiem, and Hugh Jackman’s space-and-time-bending warrior/doctor/monk in The Fountain. The difference is—and here I guess I should say “spoiler alert,” though it’s hard to spoil an ending that’s completely incomprehensible to begin with—Jackman finds the damn thing—the absolute, that is. And finding it ruins everything that was fun about Aronofsky. The metaphysical complacence of the movie’s ending is not only the culmination of the director’s hubris, it’s an allegory for that hubris. The Fountain is the story of a gifted artist who dared to reach for the stars and paid for his ambition with a really stupid movie.
But wait. Like the movie itself, I’m going about things in a nonlinear fashion here. Let me try my best to recap what actually happens in The Fountain’sthree interlocking stories.Just to be crassly chronological about it: A 16th-century Spanish conquistador (Hugh Jackman) faces off with a fierce Mayan warrior with sharpened teeth, all for the sake of his beloved Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz). There’s a whole iconography about gold rings and royal diadems and other round gold things that links us visually and thematically to the present-day story. There, Tommy Creo (again, Jackman) is a scientist researching a life-extending treatment for brain tumors, while his wife, Izzi (Weisz), is dying, conveniently enough, of a brain tumor.
Tommy just can’t accept that Izzi will ever have to die, even though she has reached a beatific peace with her own end. He sends for a piece of bark from a fabled South American tree, one that legends have claimed is the Tree of Life from the Book of Genesis … but wait! Who’s this bald monk floating through outer space in a bubble? It’s Tom, a future incarnation of Tommy Creo—or maybe just a centuries-older version of the same man—who has set out in his trusty bubblecraft for the nebula the Mayans called Xibalba. All because, according to Izzi’s book—did I mention the dying woman wrote a manuscript in calligraphy about the ancient Mayan belief in the afterlife?—merging with Xibalba is the key to achieving immortality.
Tom’s companion in the nebula-bound bubble is a strange, twisted tree, covered in fine hairs and possessed of a magic bark, that seems to be both the Tree of Life and also, in some strange way, Izzi herself. Either way, Tom-the-bald-monk-of-the-future is hell-bent on getting this tree to Xibalba posthaste … or maybe keeping it away from Xibalba at all costs. It doesn’t matter; the important thing is, if the tree dies, so does Izzi, completely and finally.
Unlike most of the critics who disliked The Fountain, I’d like to try to take this storyline seriously for a moment. Not because the plot isn’t ridiculous, but because I want to understand what the movie wants to say about death and loss. In essence, beneath all the claptrap about diadems and nebulas and rejuvenated monkey brains, this is a Faust story, in which a learned man’s ambition and curiosity take him beyond the realm of things man is supposed to know. Tommy Creo, the present-day husband and scientist, should never have climbed into that bubble in a centuries-long attempt to defer his wife’s death. (This is no news flash for the audience, who have been thinking since 20 minutes in, “Geez, Tom. Meet a nice girl already. Go to Match.com.”) I won’t give away the conclusion of the Xibalba-or-bust plotline, both because I don’t want to spoil it and because I have no idea what actually takes place. But suffice it to say that, if this Faust hasn’t succeeded in usurping the knowledge of God himself, I don’t know who has (with the possible exception of Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey; and look what happened to him).
In Pi, the math-genius hero retells a story several times about how, as a curious and rebellious 6-year-old, he disobeyed his mother’s orders and looked directly at the sun: “At first the brightness was overwhelming, but I kept looking, forcing myself not to blink and soon the brightness began to dissolve. My pupils shrank to pinholes, and everything came into focus, and for a moment I understood.” This same scene is acted out, on a cosmic scale, in the dude-my-mind-is-blown climax of The Fountain. In fact, both Pi and The Fountain share, in essence, the same climax: Bald Guy Experiences the Ultimate. That one epiphany happens in a Brooklyn hovel and the other in a bubble floating through infinite space is merely a matter of scale.
But the difference between the two movies—and what makes The Fountain a ponderous myth, where Pi was a clever fable—is in what happens after that final frontier is breached. The end of Pi has the hero sitting in a city park watching the wind in a tree, having humbly desisted in his quest to unify all meaning into one vast mathematical theory. With The Fountain, Aronofsky has become the hero of Pi, without the desistance or the humility. He not only wants to ask the big questions, he tries to tie it all up with The Big Answer. And that’s worse than bad metaphysics, it’s bad filmmaking.