Darren Aronofsky has never made movies that were easy viewing. Examples? Just watch "Pi" and "Requiem For a Dream," and you'll see why this underrated director has made one of the most astounding sci-fi movies in ages.
"The Fountain" is basically a sprawling tale that is half "real," half outside the mind -- love, immortality, death, grief and a tangled plotline that may take a few viewings to get right, but is exquisite in its simplicity. Not satisfied with depth, Aronofsky also makes it an absolutely stunning visual experience.
Research oncologist Tommy (Hugh Jackman) is trying to find a cancer cure by animal testing, so he can save the life of his dying wife Izzie (Rachel Weisz), including an unsanctioned test from a mysterious tree. As she hopes for a cure, Izzie has been writing a book about a Spanish conquistador who is seeking the immortality-granting Tree of Life.
As we see in other flashbacks, that conquistador is a version of Tommy (and Izzy as Queen Isabella). And far in the future, Tommy still struggles with his wife's loss, as he travels to a distant nebula to revive the tree. But as he finally gives in to his wife's last wish, he becomes enmeshed in a mysterious rebirth that stretches through the ages.
"The Fountain" got a royal whupping from critics, and was even booed by test audiences, who presumably couldn't understand the three storylines -- or rather, one non-linear storyline, in which the lines between reality and imagination are blurred. Perhaps all of it is true, or perhaps Tommy's mind is creating the 1500 and 2500 scenarios to help him cope.
As befits a movie that tackles so many deep themes, Aronofsky weaves mythology, creation beliefs, religion and the fear of death together, and binds it together with the universal theme -- love that even death can't overcome. The dialogue tends to be more spare than the story, rather than loading it down with unnecessary ponderings.
And he does it beautifully and surreally. The whole movie is tinged in gold -- gold light, gold costumes, gold Tree of Life, gold nebula, gold deserts. The camerawork is filmed poetry: there are sweet moments like planting a seed in a grave, the Tree lit by the sun, and the sight of Tommy inside the nebula. The most exquisite moment comes when Tommy kneels before Izzy, under the Tree, with drops of golden light falling around them.
This is undoubtedly Jackman's best movie, making us feel Tom's love and sorrow for Izzy ("There's no hope for us here. There is only death"), and the lifelong struggle against death. Your heart really breaks for him. Weisz is sweet and wilting as Izzy, and the chemistry between the two leads makes their time-busting love seem entirely reasonable.
Aronofsky has made a story that is pure art, exquisite in theme, and while you might have to watch "Fountain" a few times to really "get it," but you won't regret the experience. Even if you don't like it, in an era of bland popcorn movies, its ambition is worth praising.