The Fountain
"Incredible imagery and emotive storytelling"

How can I describe the synopsis of this movie without seeming mad? Even as I write it for the review, I'm shaking my head at how I'm going to convince someone that they must see this film. The only hope is to spit it out quickly and hope you'll stay with me.

Okay, here goes. Tripartite threads of story, interleaving at various places, all about the quest for eternal life. That's it in a nutshell - told you it was a hard sell. But as with all movies, how I feel about it is rarely to do with what the plot serves up, rather how much and how well it stirs me.

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The six years between Requiem For A Dream and this has not been time ill used. Indeed, after The Fountain was shut down and restarted with a slashed budget, sans Brad Pitt, Darren Aronofsky has had two helpings of creative juice to create this, his masterpiece.

The film is an epic poem about mortality and dealing with loss, serving up incredible imagery and emotive storytelling, gorgeously cut and dazzlingly photographed. One early shot sees the main character ascending a Mayan temple staircase, shot to look like a Stairway To Heaven – the American title for Powell and Pressberger's great comedy, A Matter Of Life And Death.

Life and death, that's all the film is about.

In the present day, Tom (Hugh Jackman) is a medical scientist, who is studying the effects of new drugs in the treatment of brain tumours, using monkeys. His research is motivated by the hope of saving his desperately ill wife, Izzi (Rachel Weisz), who is a writer. In desperation, he breaks protocol and uses a new and untested compound, taken from the essence of a Guatemalan tree, on the monkey. Izzi remains positive, while trying to finish her book, which becomes the second story thread, concerning conquistadors in the 16th century searching for the secret to eternal life from the Mayan culture. The final story thread is far off in the future, where a Zen-like Tom is travelling in an ecospheric spacecraft - oh, what a pleasure it is to see a space vehicle that doesn't look like yet another model kit - to the dying star and golden nebula named by the Mayans as their underworld, in a last-hope effort for what enlightenment it can offer.

Unlike that other Mayan epic, Apocalypto, with all its gross-out, bloody 18-certificate bits for the teenager in me, The Fountain, while being cut for a 12A rating, is strictly for adult sensibilities only. It has hopes, dreams and patience, while Mel Gibson's epic is a headlong dive into cheerful grotesquery. The anchors for Aronofsky's potent motion picture are the performances from his leading players. Jackman has never been better and Weisz is as desirable and luminous as always. They hold the film together with a powerful emotional thread and are adept at the deep, believable romance, physicality and drama, helping Aronofsky to guide the movie to its triumph. Ellen Burstyn, returning after Requiem For A Dream, gives a lovely, sympathetic performance, as Tom's troubled boss.

The film’s visual design is elegant, refined and often fantastic. It contains the most effective, convincing and beautiful interstellar space travel I have ever seen - these mighty sequences costing less than $150,000. Aronofsky is creative with his remaining visual effects budget, using CGI sparingly. The striking finale imagery left my jaw agape.

It may feel occasionally pretentious, preferring not to wait for the audience to catch up, but let's not faff about - The Fountain is astonishing cinema. And even if you aren't as moved as I was, you will doubtless appreciate the ambition and craftsmanship. It's like watching A.I again, whereupon I just “knew” further viewings are going to yield more of its precious secrets. A youthful and driven work, by a born storyteller, and told with a minimum of showbiziness - brave, bold and obtuse. The science fiction and biblical subtexts are handled with delicacy, avoiding the "wham-bam-thankyou-ma'am" kung-fu maelstrom of The Matrix Revolutions.

The trailer makes it look like a sci-fi adventure, which is seriously misselling the film. It is a visual opera of startling passion, reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's equally brilliant and barking Magnolia. And it is as revolutionary as The Matrix in taking science fiction movies into the next brave, new and beautiful world.

Reviewed on: 24 Jan 2007
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Three parallel stories, running across more than 1000 years explore the notions of life, love, obssession and loss.
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Read more The Fountain reviews:

Anton Bitel ****1/2
Chris ****
Jennie Kermode ***

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