In the past few years there have been a proliferation of people who claim to “think visually.” They usually claim to be free of the confines of linear thought and more free to process the world through a more holistic view. Unfortunately, since their supposed process of thought is visual and impressionistic, they are usually unable to express in words what they’re trying to say. This also tends to render their creations or impressions immune to any kind of criticism or evaluation, because if there is no stated purpose or intent there can be no way to judge how well they have or have not succeeded. You either “get it” or you don’t.
The Fountain is a movie that seems to be a collection of images and a mood that you either “get” or you don’t. It takes place in three time periods; one in the 16th century [none of them are ever specifically defined] which may also be the story in a book written by a woman in the present day, the second time period, and lastly at some point in the future, when man has perfected space travel via bubble. In the first time period Queen Isabel sends Tomas to find the tree of life. In the present day—the majority of the film—Tommy is a researcher trying to use the bark of a tree to reverse aging and cure his wife Izzi’s inoperable brain tumor before she dies. In the future Tommy is bald and traveling through space with a tree that seems to contain the soul of Izzi.
For the most part, none of these characters get very much depth or history. They are mainly there to represent ideas—the quest for eternal life, conquering death, man and woman, etc.—and as such one never gets very involved with them. We spend the most time with the present-day Izzi and Tommy, but even so Izzi does very little but be dewy and whimsical and Tommy doesn’t do much except weep over her and yell at his colleagues. This is supposed to be the emotional core of the movie, but Aranofsky seems to be blind to the fact that some people might find this couple somewhat to very repulsive. They struck me as a Brooklyn hipster’s view of just the most adorably quirky couple ever, with Izzi [and she's not named Julie or Sue, right?] constantly interrupting Tommy to say something just so gosh-darn full or life or just so very whimsical. She seriously never lets him finish a sentence. I think someone needs to put aside his Bjork records for a second or two. Aranofsky also seems to be unaware that many could see Tommy as a TOTAL FUCKING ASSHOLE for the way he treats his co-workers and does almost nothing but throw narcissistic tantrums which he seems to excuse with the all-purpose justification that his wife is dying. So from my point of view not only did I not engage with these characters, what I did see made me actively dislike them. And we’re supposed to feel a loss that THESE gonads can’t live forever?
There are a great many repeated visual patterns [circles, mainly] and aural clues that lend to the feeling that there is some sort of meaning tying it all together. The lighting schemes are also closely tied, with amber being the clear leader. I suppose it would seem nit-picky of me and as though I’m “missing the point” to note that Jackman seems to work in THE most over-designed, dimly-lit hospital in the world? Don’t surgeons need to SEE what they’re doing? I guess this is Graphic Annum General Hospital, where we put cutting-edge visual design ahead of health care.
I guess then it might also seem like I’m a heartless individual who has closed my heart to the true beauty of human emotion to note that Izzi has written her entire novel in pen and ink without a single ink blot, revision or erasure. Or that she apparently had her ambulance stop by an exclusive boutique to have a designer pen-and-ink set selected and lovingly gift wrapped between having a seizure and being rushed to the hospital. Although I suppose at Visual Design General Hospital they probably have a fairly robust concierge service.
We are also thrown a smattering of imagery and legends from the gamut of exotic [i.e. bourgeois] spiritual practices, most notably Buddhism. It’s the typical “spiritual” line: combine whatever conveniently works and leave out any aspect that seems unpleasant or requires you to do anything. The big spiritual ideas that are alluded to here [and allusions and impressions are all this thing’s got] are nothing new or revelatory, and are perhaps a little banal. Of course everything is banal—which usually means that you have to find some way of telling your story to make it compelling, to make it seem like universal truths as opposed to telling us something everybody knows. I didn’t find much of anything here, although those who were unaware that we need to accept death should get ready to have their minds blown.
I am surprised to see a lot of mainstream critics lauding this movie because “there’s nothing else like it out right now.” Okay, but I could make a movie about a group of five fruit bats that vacation in Guadalajara, and there’d be nothing like that out either. And for all the discussion of how very “ambitious” and “unique” this is, I can think of a number of movies that did similar things earlier and did them better. If you like the whole “two people destined to be together” tack you can watch Lovers of the Arctic Circle. If you want the whole “what does it mean to love someone / be alive” question you can watch either version of Solaris. If you are into hot “philosophy of love” action there’s always Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All of which are more coherent than this, meaning that you can judge their quality by what’s there on the screen and in the script, not in some ephemeral impression one may have based on one’s own personal experience.
None of this is to say that you can’t love this movie and be utterly moved by it. But I think one just has to be clear about whether you love this movie because there is actually something there, or if it just presents a bunch of evocative images that you project your own meanings onto. It’s perfectly valid to love something for the personal meaning it evokes, but let’s not pretend that that personal meaning is actually there in the movie.
Up to you. A lot of people love it.