Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Fountain (Aronofsky, 2006)

When has there ever been a film that fluctuated so wildly between utterly captivating and utterly banal? The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s long awaited follow-up to the superb Requiem for a Dream is a film with a superb premise and admirable ambition. Jumping between three wildly different settings -- two of which may very well exist only within the imagination -- it is the story of a man who finds himself confronted with the ultimate in inconvenient truths. Simply put: with humanity comes mortality. Everyone we have ever known and ever will know will someday die. It is inescapable fact. And yet, through various intellectual and philosophical contortions, humanity has long made an attempt to convince itself otherwise.

There is a definite joy early on in The Fountain in watching Aronofsky introduce the various elements of his story. Watching a scene with Spanish conquistadors on a quest for the Fountain of Youth cut sharply into a scene with a man and a tree floating through space in a giant snow globe sets our minds whirring. Aronofsky boldly asserts that his intention is to think large and with great anticipation we await insights of great resonance. What is this beautiful limbo in which Hugh Jackman’s character lingers? Where is he heading and what will it mean when he gets there? Dutifully we place our trust in Aronofsky and await something magical or, at the very least, meaningful.

Unfortunately, once the film starts to explain itself, it begins a gradual plunge into the mundane. The film is never again as exciting as it is in the first ten minutes when we are disoriented and relying on our own presumptions about what the film might be. At the heart of the narrative is a plot that is disappointingly simple and surprisingly unaffecting. A doctor conducts medical research that he hopes will one day save his wife’s life. The problem is that her condition is very serious and time is running short. Even when he attains success, he is disappointed when the results are not immediately practical for his situation. His colleagues protest and tell him that he is “losing perspective.”

One of Aronofsky’s key mistakes is explaining away his other two settings by making the doctor’s wife the author of a novel-in-progress. This choice spoils some of the fun we might otherwise have had by making the connections too literal. Consequently, all that is said in those alternate settings becomes a part of a simplistic message offered by the wife to her husband: death is coming and it must be accepted. It eventually dawns on us that this strange, audacious film that literally reaches for the stars and is occasionally quite beautiful has an alarming lack of substance. No doors of perception are opened. No revelations are made. The central storyline is not even involving emotionally. Instead, Aronofsky takes the most basic of truths -- something that should be plain to any person old enough to want to sit through the film – dresses it up in fancy clothes and calls it philosophy.

The discussions that follow The Fountain will no doubt be far more compelling than the film itself. This is because there is no doubt that Aronofsky is dancing around some compelling ideas here. Unfortunately those post-show discussions will arise not from Aronofsky’s artistry and insights, but rather the lingering desire to fill out for ourselves what he might have accomplished.



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