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Fountain, The Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007

Image Most cultures have an immortality/fountain of youth myth. The avoidance of death is one of the (if not the) most primal human desires. In “The Fountain” writer/director Darren Aronofsky delves into the idea of this myth, telling a story that’s epic in scope but intimate and simple.

“The Fountain” intercuts between three stories taking place in three different timelines: in the first, conquistador Tomas (Hugh Jackman), deep in the South American jungle passionately quests after the fountain of youth on a mission for his queen, Isabel (Rachel Weisz) who feels its discovery will help save her reign from the Inquisition. In modern times, doctor Tom Creo (also Jackman) pushes himself and his colleagues to the limit in an attempt to find a cure for the brain tumor that is killing his wife, Izzy (also Weisz). Sometime far in the future, a bald monklike man named Tommy (Jackman again) journeys through the cosmos in a large bubble-shaped terrarium along with a large gnarled tree.

Darren Aronofsky’s third feature film is a highly original work that is both visually stunning and emotionally powerful. The way the three stories interconnect, and the added resonance that results from match-cutting from three different timelines to characters experiencing a similar scene or emotions is a wonderfully filmic device, and results in fascinating visual juxtapositions. While superficially a work of complex construction and breadth, the core story is very simple and grounded on real human emotions and needs. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz deliver tangibly believable, raw, emotional performances that anchor the audience through the rest of the film’s head-trip like journey. Their chemistry is crucial to the film, and their scenes together in the modern sequence have both incredible tenderness and bristling tension. The tragedy of Tom is that his love for his wife is so great, and his drive to find a cure for her so fierce, that they actually pull him away from her. As Izzy becomes sicker, Tom becomes more driven, less available, more frayed and edgy and consumed by his work, losing his chance to spend this important time with her. There’s a greater tragedy here that I will not reveal, but Tom’s story and his drive is closely matched by the fierce conquistador on his mythic quest to win Queen Isabel and save her throne from the oppression of the inquisition. In his violent confrontations with traitorous members of his band and his savage determination in the face of angry natives, we see an explicit dramatization of Doctor Tom’s rage against God, nature or whatever force is taking Izzy from him. Doctor Tom and Tomas are united in one front—save the women they love from forces just beyond their control. This attempt of theirs to thwart the nature of death itself remains visible and palpable, but maddeningly just beyond their reach. As for the monk-like Tommy, his journey may ultimately be the inverse of Tomas’s and Doctor Tom’s, but that’s a subjective interpretation and one that cannot be discussed without spoilers. “The Fountain” is clearly a labor of love for Aronofsky and for the core cast. It’s a challenging and unconventional film, with a visual scope and ideas that thankfully, the filmmakers were able to fully fund. One can imagine a threadbare version of this film where the ideas are there but the technical execution is compromised. While “The Fountain” was not a financial success, it’s an artistic one. One is struck, though, while watching it how incompatible it must have been for large audience screenings, particularly American. “The Fountain” is best when experienced alone or with a lover or spouse, especially since the film plays on the very private feelings and emotional ties between couples. That said, the combination of cosmic soul searching, time-bending drama and tragic love story is a concoction that is certainly not for all audiences. For those with whom the film does connect, they’ll find it a work of intense beauty, artistic conviction and emotional power. It’s a highly underrated work: ambitious, thought provoking and thrilling. We need more movies with as much fire and passion for life as “The Fountain” has.

The HD release accurately conveys the imagery and its selected palette of golds, browns and fleshtones. It’s a predominantly dark film and its blacks are dense and deep without any muddiness or noise. The HD transfer is a pleasing, stable encoding that is richly detailed in wide shots and in special effects, making the entire journey a more captivating experience. A few shots display a bit more grain and lack the level of detail on display throughout the rest, mostly noticeable in the modern sequences. One shot of Ellen Burstyn in the laboratory is notably soft. Given the film’s heightened and very specific palette, these anomalies may be a result of a resolution drop in the digital intermediate process or an intentional choice to differentiate the modern sequences from the two other timelines. (Note: 35mm film has a resolution that is roughly comparable to 4000 lines of video resolution. In the digital intermediate process, each film frame is scanned into the computer, where the palette can be controlled, and lighting adjustments made in different parts of an individual frame. Unfortunately, the majority of digital intermediates done in the last several years have been outputting only 2000 [or 2K] lines, which reduce the original photography’s resolution by half. As 4K equipment becomes more commonplace and financially workable, more and more digital intermediates will be done at that resolution.)

“The Fountain” is also available in Blu-ray, but the HD release has the edge over it with its higher bit rate Dolby Digital Plus encoding. The 5.1 surround track is frequently intense and many sequences bring all the channels actively into the mix, particularly in the conquistador sequences. It’s a somewhat loud track as far as balance with the dialogue goes. The music helps draw you into the experience and the aural and visual spectacle and intensity of several scenes does not overpower the gentle and emotional heart of the film. The subwoofer channel adds much weight to the more violent and intense sequences and is used powerfully during the finale.

Peter Parks’ macro-photography (as in the cosmic sequences of 1978’s “Superman,” which he also worked on) uses microscopic chemical reactions to substance for a journey into the cosmos—in this case nebulae. There’s a chord deeply struck by the imagery, when seeing these images blown up to a large size. The similarity of cosmic journeys and microscopic ones is an idea that worked for “Superman” and it works here as well.

A fairly substantial 50-minute collection of featurettes is the main item here and it’s worth watching. It covers the pre-production work started on the first abortive attempt to make the film. It raises a batch of unanswered questions that are frustratingly not answered, most importantly why was production shut down? There’s probably a worthwhile documentary to be made just on this initial attempt to make the film.

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