Emergent systems fascinate me. Systems comprised of a number of simpler parts acting together often develop more complex behaviours as a collective than they would by themselves. In simple terms, these systems are more than the sum of their parts.
After watching Darren Aronofsky’s long-awaited The Fountain, I couldn’t help but think that it is less than the sum of its parts. If you break the film down into its various pieces, you’ll find some technically impressive work. Almost every aspect of this film is done incredibly well. Yet somehow, when you add it all up, something is missing. It’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in years, and all the technical aspects of that (cinematography, photography, special effects (which were not CGI) etc…) are exceptionally well done. I was seriously slack-jawed at the visual compositions for much of the movie (the same way I am when I watch 2001: A Space Odyssey – a film that The Fountain owes a great debt to). In short, it’s an absolutely gorgeous film (watch the trailer for a taste – interestingly, the trailer is almost a microcosm of the film itself – it’s also gorgeous, but I can’t imagine most people being swayed by anything by the visuals). The music was fantastic. The acting was great. The story was rather simplistic, but it’s not like a traditonal love story can’t be interesting. Ultimately, it’s probably the story and the characterization that is at fault here, though I’m not really sure why. Spoilers ahead, for those who care…
The story’s science fiction elements have been played up in the marketing, which stresses the three major time periods in which the film takes place (1500 A.D., 2000 A.D., and 2500 A.D.) and asks “What if you could live forever?” But the film’s primary focus is on the contemporary setting, where Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is a scientist working to find a way to treat his wife, Izzie (Rachel Weisz), who has an inoperable brain tumor. Izzy, it turns out, is writing a novel about a Spanish Queen (also played by Weisz) who sends a Conquistador (also played by Jackman) on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth. And the future plot thread shows a bald man (also Jackman) travelling through space in a neat looking orb (his only passenger being a neat looking tree). It’s unclear if the futuristic portion of the film is a continuation of Izzie’s novel, or if it is really happening. In any case, both the past and future portions of the film exist to emphasise what happens in the contemporary portion of the film. There are obvious parallels in each of the narratives.
There’s a lot to chew on here, which is part of why my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, the film displays such a rich and ambitious vision that’s difficult to deny. On the other hand, the rampant symbolism and split narrative structure seems to distract from the story rather than enhance it. In an interview, Aronofsky described the story thusly:
I think it’s a really simple love story at the core. It’s really about a man and a woman in love. One of them is going away and the other one’s not coming to terms with it. Eventually he does come to terms with it. There’s sort of a big anti-thinking, anti-intellectual message in the film even though it’s kind of told in a very different way that you think it makes you think. It’s really very simple the film and that’s why I kind of messed with the structure, taking a very simple idea but then encasing it in a puzzle structure that makes people think about how it all fits together and talk about how it fits together. But at the core it’s a very simple emotional story I think.
I think perhaps he got a bit carried away messing with the structure, as I found myself more interested in decoding the visual language of the film than the actual characters in the film. There are some moments of levity in which you see the love these characters have for one another and there are some interesting dynamics to their relationship, but these details aren’t fleshed out very much. Maybe because of that, I didn’t really connect on an emotional level (though there are instances in which I do, they are ultimately fleeting). I could recognize the emotion on an intellectual level, but I wasn’t able to fully lose myself in the story.
This movie is certainly not for everyone. Lots of people will see it as a pretentious art film filled with pompous, but beautiful, imagery (I think even the films detractors recognize Aronofsky’s visual flare). Some will note that they didn’t want to see Hugh Jackman cry for an hour and a half. However, I’m willing to bet that it will make lots of critics’ best of the year lists, and despite my objections, I’m not sure they’re wrong to include it. The film snob in me acknowledges the technical brilliance of the film, but the populist in me simply doesn’t buy it. Symbolism, visual density, ambition, and ambiguity are good things, and they’re all evident in this film, but it’s possible to go overboard and you need something more than just those things. I feel like something is definitely missing. Maybe after repeated viewings, I won’t feel that way. There are a lot of visuals to parse in the film, moreso than in others, but I’m not sure that will be enough.
This is Aronofsky’s third feature film and even though I don’t think The Fountain is as much of a success as his first two films, my opinion of him hasn’t changed much. I’m still looking forward to whatever he makes next, and I’m confident that it will be worth seeing. If I were to consider it a strike, it would be a foul ball – one that narrowly missed the pole in left field too (so close that I had trouble seeing it at first). He definitely made solid contact, but something was just a little off. Otherwise, it would have been out of the park. (**1/2)