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Fountain, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 11/22/06 02:28:04

"Looks great. Means nothing."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

All throughout “The Fountain,” Darren Aronofsky’s long-awaited, long-delayed follow-up to “Requiem for a Dream,” my mind could not shake comparisons to “Solaris,” both the 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky masterpiece and the 2002 Steven Soderbergh remake. Like the two “Solaris” films (Solarii?) , “The Fountain” takes a cryptic, grown-up view of science fiction and deals with themes of the truest essence of love and death. Yet while Aronofsky’s film is beautiful in both sight and sound, it is, unlike the film it wants to be, disappointingly, maddeningly, tediously, sometimes even accidentally hilariously empty. This is a film that assumes an intentionally confusing collage of scenes and long, quiet moments instantly equals meaningful. It is wrong.

It is also a movie with great promise, and even in the earliest scenes, even though you can feel the wheels already beginning to come off, you can also see what writer/director Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel were attempting. Here is the possibility to leave the audience thinking for days on the subject of love, sacrifice, and death. Instead, all we get are a bunch of shots of a bald Hugh Jackman floating around space in his pajamas, talking to a tree.

It is both as intriguing and as laughable as it sounds.

The script is one of those which jumps back and forth between time periods, often repeating itself. We alternate between three stories:

1. A very hairy Hugh Jackman is a Spanish conquistador during the Inquisition; Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz) has instructed him to go to South America and find the Tree of Life, the very same Tree of Life from the Book of Genesis, a tree whose sap offers immortality.

2. A completely hairless Hugh Jackman is floating through space in a giant bubble, which contains him, a ginormous tree, and the remnants of a fountain pen. Floating through space alone is very boring, so sometimes Hugh Jackman talks to the tree. Rachel Weisz, not bald, occasionally appears as a ghost/vision/delusion and chats as well. Somebody somewhere keeps whispering “Finish it.”

3. Hugh Jackman, whose hair now sits at average length, is a modern day scientist studying brain tumors in the hopes of saving the life of his sickly wife, Izzy (Rachel Weisz, of course). Dr. Jackman tries using the bark of a tree from South America in curing a lab monkey; the side effects give the monkey a youthful vigor. For some reason, all of the fellow scientists, among them Ethan Suplee and Sean Patrick Thomas, always dress like longshoremen.

Aronofsky cuts in between these three tales in such a manner that it takes a while to figure out what’s happening and how it all connects, which is admirable: here is a filmmaker challenging the audience, demanding fullest attention. The problem is, once the pieces start to connect, you realize that there’s just not much there there. The entire ninety minutes of the film can be boiled down to two points: Hugh Jackman really loves Rachel Weisz, and Hugh Jackman is afraid to die. Lather, rinse, repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

The film is so gorgeously presented that we’re more than willing to go with it as it figures out where it’s headed. Aronofsky, a master of composing stunning images, here pushes his talents to replicate the feel of Tarkovsky or Kubrick without losing his own personal style. Those long, methodical takes are, on their own, very lovely, and the special effects team, the set designers, and the costume crews all work to make this a feast for the senses. Above all, it’s Clint Mansell’s haunting musical score that fills the film with a striking beauty.

So we’re anxious for the film to pay off big, as we’re sold on how well it looks. Sure, we’re bored out of our minds, as the first hour is plodding and pretentious, yet surely all this artistic stuff is going somewhere, right?

Nope.

What we get in the last half hour is the slow, sad realization that Aronofsky has focused so much on style that he forgot to work on substance. We get clues of this on the way there, of course: while the film is visually impressive, its screenplay is unbearably weak. Characters are underwritten and fail to engage the audience. We just can’t come to care about them or their problems. Dialogue is stilted, with references to a distant nebula that plays an essential part of the story’s cheaply obvious symbolism thrown in with great clumsiness; it’s odd to see a movie this desperate to appeal to the intellectual crowd bother with over-explaining some things that only the dumbest viewer would need to have repeated. This is a film that’s so anxious about looking grandiose that when it comes time to deal with the human angle, it trips over itself. Which is peculiar, considering the very point of the film is to examine the very core of humanity. Aronofsky cannot get his characters to connect with us, and the movie slowly crumbles.

Then comes that finale, the biggest mess of all, in which everything gets tangled in an embarrassing effort to out-puzzle “Solaris,” “2001,” and any other brainy, enigmatic sci-fi effort to come to mind. Scenes shift around and repeat beyond any usefulness, in a way that will cause more giggles than thoughtful nods of understanding; other moments drag to obnoxious worthlessness; one moment involving the flora at the base of the Tree of Life will remind you of “Creepshow” in its use of EC Comics-esque that’s-what-you-get irony (a bad, bad, bad idea all around, completely ill-fitting for this movie). When it’s over, you’ll realize that you sat through three very uninteresting stories and got nothing in return.

At its core, there is enough of a point to all of the goings-on that you can see what Aronofsky wanted to say. The aforementioned thoughts on life and death and love are there, but they’re sinking like a brick. There’s nothing in Aronofsky’s half-assed, sloppy story to inspire the viewer, to fill the audience with the same sense of wonder that made, say, “2001” the classic it is today. The filmmaker simply hopes that by tossing out a few “deep thoughts” and being intentionally mysterious and loading every shot with postcard-perfect imagery, it’d be enough for the more pretentious members of the moviegoing crowd to be tricked into finding it meaningful and beautiful and thought-provoking. And I have no doubt that some people will indeed love this movie, as it looks like it should mean something.

Look more closely, and you’ll see that it doesn’t mean enough. It’s “Solaris” by someone who can mimic the visual beauty of that work but cannot replicate the soul of the it. It’s “2001” by someone who failed to realize that the imagery enhanced the story, but was not the story itself. It is mature science fiction by someone who knows how he wants to say something, but never bothered with what he wanted to say. Aronofsky’s films have always been visually thrilling and intellectually challenging; with “The Fountain,” he’s merely a dull, bothersome poseur.

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