Monday, March 12, 2007

The Fountain, or On Failure

The Fountain is a great big steaming pile of shit. That much should be made clear at the outset. On making it through a screening of the picture, we're left with the feeling common to all survivors of sudden, unexpected trauma: that of wanting to shut it from our minds forever, to surge forward just to put that horrible tragedy as far behind us as possible; and a niggling knowledge that, if we're to avoid terrible mistakes like this in the future, we have to excavate, to pry among the wreckage and find out just what went so wrong.

Because if The Fountain has a core - and it's part of the problem, obviously, that that question has to be asked - but if it does, you can't help thinking it's a rather lovely nugget of character and story. Early strokes that go toward teasing out our protagonists and their predicament - Weisz' shrugging grin as she tosses out a line whose meaning we're only just becoming aware of - are beautiful and understated. Unfortunately they're hard to get a purchase on, buried as they are in between scenes of a shaven-headed, monastically-pajama'ed Jackman performing tai chi while silhouetted against an infinite starscape, or floating, full-lotus, alongside a great big inflated-Bonsai tree (which he, of course, talks to) that's apparently meant to resemble - what else? - the Sephiroth.

This is The Fountain's problem: for every fleeting, achingly true glimpse at a couple divided over her readiness to die and his unwillingness to let her, we have to sit through awful, awful attempts at recontextualising spirituality for the 21st century and beyond. Aronofsky says he first thought of making The Fountain after he and Jared Leto (namedropping his) went to see The Matrix and got to wondering what kind of sci-fi you could make nowadays: apparently their answer was, "a little bit of that historical faction the kids are liking and a whole shitload of tired gnostic/new-age cliches about death and rebirth and fifth-dimensionality". Whereas a perfectly acceptable answer would've been, "The Matrix".

What The Fountain perceives as its own Grand Themes aren't ridiculous in and of themselves - they're just really poorly conveyed. When you have to have a character actually say lines like, "whaddaya think - death as an act of rebirth!", it might be time to wonder if your attempts at blowing audiences' perceptions wide open may not actually be aiming as high as you think they are. When your big third-act turning-point is the protagonist smiling and repeating, with what you mistakenly let him pass off as newborn-child enthusiasm, "I'm gonna die!", you have to be open to the possibility that you're wasting our time.

And the thing of it is is that this is all just bolted-on. Taken literally, The Fountain's tri-chronological story is the worst kind of Grant-Morrison-on-a-bad-day, teenage-Tool-listener bullshit. Accepted as somewhat allegorical - Thomas' failure to deal with Izzi's embracing of her own death and his subsequent retreat into fantasy - it's still overwrought and dumb (his painstaking attempts at injecting monkeys with bits of the Tree of Life so as to save her life worked - right after she died! Oh the humanity! etc). But it might almost manage enough poignant genuineness to pull through, if Aronovsky wasn't exercising his business-as-usual obsession with being Stylish. Unfortunately we'll never know, because as soon as the actual story is going somewhere, we cut back to Thomas The Astronaut flying through space with his magic wife-tree, or Thomas The Conquistador reminding us that Apocalypto was nice because it had similarly huge cosmological concerns but it was also Rambo with blowpipes.

Perhaps the whole thing was summed up last year when Wired magazine had a selection of famous folk, echoing Hemingway, write sci-fi stories in six words. Alan Moore, whose stock-in-trade is this sort of schtick (but done well), wrote an okay one; Darren Aronovsky, through what we'll assume is sheer coincidence, wrote pretty well exactly the same story, only it wasn't as elegant. And it took two people to do it.