November 30, 2006

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The Fountain (R)
Do you like your sci-fi full of biblical iconography and your love stories sad and befuddling? Say hello to The Fountain, the latest from Darren Aronofsky, he of Requiem for a Dream and Pi.

The Fountain is also ever so lovely — like looking at the inside of a sleek, low-key martini bar or a high-end box of chocolates. There are rich golds and browns and beautiful use of geometric shapes and repeating patterns. Occasionally, all that earthiness will be punctuated by glorious, makes-you-squint white light. The contrast somehow makes that sudden shock of purity purer and the fleshy, mortal qualities of the rest of the images all more appealing.

And, heck, if you're going to travel through space in a bubble with a dying tree and through time with a shaky plot and some romantic notions about eternity, you might as well look good. Dazzle €˜em with presentation and it will take a while before anybody starts to poke the half-baked parts of this dish.

Tom (Hugh Jackman) is our bubble boy — a 26th century astronaut who is escorting a barely-holding-on Tree of Life to a nebula wherein that tree, Tom and possibly the wife he lost half a millennium earlier can be reborn. That wife, Izzy (Rachel Weisz), was married to him when he was Tommy, a modern-era cancer researcher desperately looking for a cure to prevent her from dying from her brain cancer. He doesn't find the cure (at least, not right away) but he does identify a substance made from a Central American tree that reverses the aging process (at least in lab monkeys).

Why, is that the same tree he adventured for as Tomas, the 16th century conquistador who sought the secret of immortality for his Queen Isabel (also Weisz), at risk from the power-mad leader of the Inquisition? She told him the tree of life was in the new Spanish colony, charged him with finding it and gave him a ring as a promise of her support in his mission (and, possibly, her support of being "his Eve" after his mission). In our time, that ring is his wedding band, which he misplaces and eventually tattoos onto his finger, a sign of his eternal devotion to Izzy.

The love story of Izzy/Isabel and the various Toms is romantic as all get out, with the movie lingering on their physical hunger for each other. Conquistador Tomas inhales air from a bag carrying the ring, searching for the scent of Isabel. Modern Tommy is enraptured by the back of his wife's neck, with its warm skin and short hairs, which is mirrored by the strip of living bark on the Tree of Life. The dance of this couple through time is tipsy and strange but intoxicating and full of a kind of sensuality you don't often get in movie portrayals of marriage.

The film's driving philosophy, well, is nice if a bit tidy in how it pulls together ideas of eternity. For a movie that takes biblical themes and expresses them through science, The Fountain gets a bit all-sweethearts-go-to-heaven-ish in its conclusion.

Which is to say that parts of The Fountain feel kind of silly and a little "check out the snazzy graphics I used in my film school thesis." But between the dazzle and the super sleek lovey-dovey-ness, the movie is worth watching, even when you sense Aronofsky let the symbolism get away from him or ran out of "point" or "making sense" in some scenes. The movie reminds me of a joke my poli-sci professor used to tell at the end of the semester when we were all worn out and looking for an easy laugh. Ask me anything, he'd say, any question you might ever want to know the answer to. "So what's the meaning of life, professor?" "Life is a fountain," he say, "next question." Yeah, I always thought, what the hell? Life is a fountain. Here I am, studying poli-sci on the off chance it will be useful to my future career, on the off chance that I'll actually find a job post college and not be forced to eternally temp. Sitting in my college classroom, moments away from a final exam, filled with a kind of "God only knows" mix of hope and exhaustion familiar to college students and soldiers right before battle, my entire education seemed like an act of extraordinary, dumb faith. I give, universe, I throw up my hands. I will pass this class, love can outrun death, existence is ever-changing but everlasting, life is a fountain. See this movie? Sure, why not? B-

Rated R for some violence (but artful violence!). Directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Aronofsky and Ari Handel, The Fountain is an hour and 36 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Brothers in wide release.

— Amy Diaz