NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - The Fountain (*** out of ****) is talented young hotshot director Darren Aronofsky's attempt at creating his own 2001-style myth about life, death and what may lie beyond it. I wish I could call it an unqualified masterpiece, one not worth the strong critical drubbing it's been getting from some quarters, especially after it was booed when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year. It's an honorable try, at best. As much as I enjoyed and was genuinely stirred by the film's passion throughout, ultimately I couldn't help but feel that The Fountain, for all its visual splendor and its entirely respectable pretensions, is simply not quite rich or complex enough to stand up to 2001 or Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris, to mention two other sci-fi meditations about similar subjects. Whereas Kubrick's and Tarkovsky's imagery can be both coldly impressive and spiritually expressive (remember the slow-motion romantic tryst in zero gravity in Solaris?), sometimes Aronofsky's gold-tinted imagery seems merely like slick magazine-ad surface skimming. And sometimes not. Aronofsky's equally flashy technique in his previous two films---Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2001)---strikes me as more psychologically penetrating than much of what he provides in The Fountain. (In Pi, Aronofsky, shooting on grainy black-and-white 16mm film, really gets you inside the head of its paranoid math-genius protagonist; and his drug montages in Requiem are still some of the most brilliantly edited depictions of the cravings and feelings induced in drug addicts I've yet seen).
Still, should a movie like The Fountain have to be perfect in order to be great? Maybe a movie like this should simply be allowed to exist, out there in the movie landscape, a monument to one artist's grand ambition and perhaps his megalomania. I'm inclined to cut The Fountain a lot of slack simply for its effort and its sincerity. There's a lot to be said for a movie like this one that dares to be grandiose, dares to be silly and pretentious, dares to create a modern myth about such a powerful, universal subject such as death and man's attempts to live forever. Aronofsky may not be quite as visually profound---and is certainly not as philosophically profound---as Kubrick or Tarkovsky were, but nevertheless you can sense that he's trying to reach for something big: for some kind of wisdom about life and death, for some kind of genuine transcendence. This is the kind of "folly" Pauline Kael talked about in her opening of her review of Bertolucci's 1900: this is an "artist-initiated big-budget epic" shot in a state of "superenlightenment" that "tries to bring mankind the word," the kind of overreaching movie that could only be made by a filmmaker who, after popular and/or critical success, "gets drunk on the potentialities of movies." That's the kind of personal integrity that kept my eyes glued to screen as I watched The Fountain; it's why I can't help but think fondly on it even as I recognize its faults---its abstractions-rather-than-characters (especially in the case of Rachel Weisz's Izzy), its occasionally laughable dialogue (trying to be poetic and heightened, but perhaps Aronofsky should have trusted his imagery to speak for itself), and Clint Mansell's overly insistent, rather derivative score (his score for Requiem for a Dream was vastly more restrained, and thus much more effectively solemn and emotional). But then, I'm not sure anyone would claim that even similar cinematic follies like Griffith's Intolerance, Gance's Napoléon, or even Coppola's Apocalypse Now are perfect movies. What matters is that these are personal visions from a particular director who doesn't care whether you're on board with him or not; Aronofsky's doing his own thing, and not compromising or dumbing things down for his audience.
Two things worth mentioning in passing:
Aronofsky seems to favor two particular kinds of shots in The Fountain: direct overhead shots that seem to suggest a God's-eye view of certain events (like Tom's operating on a monkey), and brightly lit close-ups that suggest characters about to meet their destinies, no matter how transcendent or tragic. I dunno, I just thought they were worth pointing out, particularly because they seem highly appropriate to Aronofsky's vision (and are maybe an indication of where The Fountain falls short: there's nothing particularly expressive about those two types of shots except for how interestingly they are placed or lighted).
And finally, the climax of the 15th-century Inquisition storyline (out of three Aronofsky tries to tell at once, with an emphasis on the present-day storyline), in which Tomas (also Hugh Jackman) finally gets to the tree of life, is the one moment where Aronofsky pulls off something genuinely visionary, genuinely commensurate with his vast ambition. Tomas is so happy to have gotten to the "promised land" that he immediately eats bark from the tree in an enthusiastic rush---before flowers begin to start sprouting from a stomach wound and then begin to sprout out of his body in general. I can't really describe it in a way that'll convey the awesome effect of the moment: suffice it to say that an image of a flowerbed in the shape of Tomas is arguably the closest Aronofsky comes to matching Kubrick or Tarkovsky in its visual and thematic profundity. (Too bad the movie didn't end with that image.)