Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Fountain (first viewing)

Bloody typical. You wait all your life for a big budget Hollywood movie about Mayans, and then two come along at once. Mel Gibson's 'Apocalypto' was marketed as being primarily about the fall of the Mayan civilisation, but in reality, it was just an action-packed chase movie set against the backdrop of the Mayan culture. Darren Aronofsky's latest offering - 'The Fountain' - also refers to Mayan culture, and in actual fact, reveals more about the Mayan people. However, whereas Apocalypto attempted to physically drop the audience directly into a Mayan reality, 'The Fountain' looks at Mayan spiritual beliefs, by referring to a particular myth that has commonality with part of the story of Genesis from the Christian Bible: that of the tree of life.

When Adam and Eve ate that apple in the Garden of Eden, they plucked it from the Tree of Knowledge. This angered God, who promptly kicked them out, and without four weeks notice either. (The law would have a different view of that nowadays I can tell you). However, there was another tree referred to in this story, the Tree of Life. Apparently, to eat from the Tree of Life is to be given eternal life. The Mayan people had apparently located this tree on earth, and built a secret temple at it's location. This tree is pretty much the basis of the story in 'The Fountain'.

'The Fountain' is a complex, ambitious tale of love, faith and death. Three threads run in parallel throughout the movie, describing the relationship between Tommy (played by Hugh Jackman) and Izzy (Rachel Weisz). The three stories take place in different time-frames, with one in present day, one set in the 15th century, and one set far into the future, but all describe the love between these two characters over the ages, and their relative quests to uncover the secret of this Tree of Life.

Now, Darren Arronofsky could be fairly described as 'an acquired taste'. This description is a cliche that more accurately be phrased as 'you won't like this at first'. The audience reaction to his movies is visceral, emotive and often polarised. To wit, when 'The Fountain' premiered at Cannes, it was roundly booed. The following night, in the same cinema, it received a standing ovation and rapturous applause.

Aronofsky's offerings are not the cinematic equivalent of fast food. His movies are weighty, ambitious and dark, more like Oysters than a Whopper. They tackle adult themes and deliver messages in ways that allow the audience to interpret much of what they have seen. In addition, they display a characteristic which betrays the scale Aronofsky's ambitions, which is that despite these movies being made in Hollywood, there are no easily digestible morals or formulaic Hollywod endings.

The first time I saw Aronofsky's 'Pi', I was completely blown away, and it remains one of my all-time favourites to this day. Made on a shoestring, 'Pi' tells a very dark, complex story involving the relationship between numbers and the natural world. Max Cohen is a maths genius tortured by headaches and hallucinations, and convinced he is on the verge of discovering the ultimate breakthrough: 'the number of God'... PCMR fondly remembers a party in a former residence which got a little out of hand. The following morning, a number of walking wounded were lodged in various states of hungover stupor in the living room, apparently unwilling to shift. PCMR decided the only thing to unsettle these people was a little dose of Aronofsky, so 'Pi' was put on in it's full surround sound glory. The meek little lambs were awake enough to pay attention to the movie, but blissfully unaware of the assault on their senses that was to follow... Sure enough, when the closing credits began rolling, the bodies looked meekly around the room, nervously rubbing their eyes, attempting to phrase questions their hungover brains couldn't process.. Eventually, they began shambling homewards, whimpering softly as they left.

This is the effect an Aronofsky movie can have on people. 'Requiem For a Dream' was no different in it's unrelenting sensory assailance. Adapted from a Hubert Selby jr. book of the same name, this was never going to be a popcorn movie. To this day, the soundtrack alone is enough to send PCMR into a mild depression, with only a few bars required. Featuring the always fantastic Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto and an absolutely excellent Ellen Burstyn, 'Requiem for a Dream' is a study on addiction in all its forms, and is a tour de force, despite the incongruous presence of a Wayans brother in one of the main roles. PCMR's advice: don't watch Aronofsky's movies if you're hungover, you may just decide to end it all there and then!

I've been eagerly anticipating the release of 'The Fountain' for around a year, as the production has been one of those that Hollywood rather tellingly describes as 'troubled'. Originally, Brad Pitt was cast in the lead role, but he got the hump and shagged off to do 'Babel', so Hugh Jackman was cast in the lead, opposite Rachel Weisz, who as it happens, is Aronofsky's fiance.

I've never had a strong opinion of Hugh Jackman, but I remember him as being pretty much a perfect 'Wolverine' in the X-Men movies, and possibly the kind of guy to turn up in a few romantic comedies that I wouldn't see. However, despite the fact that 'The Fountain' is altogether more cerebral than anything I've seen him in before, Jackman turns in a very impressive performance, and for what it's worth, has gone up hugely in my own estimation as a result. Some of his more emotional moments, including one where he tattoos his finger, are memorable, very moving indeed, and a nice surprise from someone you might not have thought capable beforehand. Weisz too gives a decent performance as Izzy, but her character is not the protagonist, and she acts almost as a symbol of Tommy's love, rather than a real person.

The soundtrack is remarkable enough, in that it is ethereal, other-worldly and vaguely eerie. It plays in the background in a subtly threatening way, never dominating the proceedings until the climactic scenes, where the crescendo complements the action perfectly.

Visually though, 'The Fountain' is particularly amazing. Aronofsky uses almost every shot as an experiment in lighting and cinematography, and the results are vivid, lavish and extremely easy on the eye. The timelines allow him to use different palettes, and this emphasizes the distinction between the parallel storylines, easing the effect of the numerous transitions over the course of the movie. In particular, some of the final shots in the Fountain are immaculately brought to life, and are possibly worth the admission price alone.

The question PCMR would ask, however, is whether audiences will stay with the story until the end. This is an ambitious, demanding story, evaluating the relationship between fate, love and death. The two main characters have a bond that traverses time, and each story involves the 'Tree of Life' from the Garden of Eden. This demands quite a lot from the audience, and will likely turn a lot of people off. As it builds towards the climax of the story, much thematic ground is covered, in particular over the course of the story set in the present day. However, as I said previously, Aronofsky does not make popcorn movies!

To compare the director to anyone else is difficult. Like Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain uses the device of forging connection between three separate stories, so he could possibly be compared to Inarritu, the man behind '21 Grams', 'Amores Perros', and more recently the best picture nominated Babel. However, PCMR would argue that this device is more successfully deployed by Aronofsky. Final judgement will be reserved on that though, until PCMR gets a viewing of 'Babel', coming soon...

In his ambition to maximise the possibilities of cinema as a visual medium, and his laborious attention to detail, a more accurate comparison could inevitably be drawn to Stanley Kubrick, the man behind 'A Clockwork Orange', 'The Shining', and of course '2001'. There are moments in The Fountain that are very reminiscent of '2001', including one signature shot from the storyline set in the future, where a cue-ball bald Hugh Jackman is outlined from the back, sitting mid-air in lotus position, as a star collapses in front of his eyes..

So, Aronofsky is standing on the shoulders of giants here, but are the comparisons fair? Well, PCMR cannot think of a director that is currently working today, whose work I anticipate with more excitement. The Fountain promised to be truly great, and it's ambition is to be applauded. There is so much real talent on screen, from Aronofsky, Ellen Burstyn, and Jackman in particular. The visual effect of the Fountain is truly unique, and the vision of Aronofsky, who also wrote the movie, is very well realised.

However, I felt that there was something missing from The Fountain, something that was present in Aronofsky's two other previous efforts, and I'm finding it hard to put my finger on what it is exactly, hence the 'First Viewing' tag on this post. I will watch this one again though, so perhaps that's an indicator in itself... Perhaps the George Lucas Principle of Movie Expectations at work here though, as I was expecting a lot from this one.

Critics of Aronofsky will call this film pretentious wank. And it is pretentious, in that it is hugely ambitious in its scope, its themes and its targets. However, PCMR is firmly entrenched in the pro-Aronofsky camp, and believes there are not enough people like him working today. Jerry Bruckheimer can tackle the marketing side of Hollywood, and fair play to him, he's doing great things there. However, if we leave the creative side of movie-making in the hands of people like Darren Aronofsky, we can look forward to enjoying visual feasts like the Fountain on a more regular basis. PCMR would argue that this is no bad thing.

The Verdict: Very well acted, beautifully shot and scored, an original and unique vision from a director with a big big future, it's worth a look, but not for fans of '2 Fast 2 Furious'!
The Rating: 7/10


Dave said...

Did you know director Aronofsky recast the story as a graphic novel, which is available. I'm a huge fan of Aronofsky and didn't even now this was in the pipeline, although I've been a bit busy for the last while...
I doubt I'll make it to the cinema, but I'm sure I'll get it on DVD.

Paddy C said...

There's a story about this, apparently the studio didn't want to make the $75M version Aronofsky had scripted, so he did the graphic novel of that version.. should definitely be worth a read.

First ever 'Graphic Novel Director's cut'?

By the way, the Irish release date of 'The Fountain' has been held back, because it's not nominated for any Oscars... someone at Fox should be shot for making that decision!

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