Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" is a noble, shipwrecked folly: a passionately crafted meditation on love and human vanity that stars Hugh Jackman as a conquistador, a research scientist, and an interstellar holy man in a bubble with a tree. Not just any tree, mind you. The Tree of Life.
Does the movie work? Hardly, and yet the thing's alive with the urgency of its emotions. A throwback to the visionary personal filmmaking of the 1960s and early '70s, "The Fountain" represents the polar opposite of the big-box product Hollywood now feeds us.
Not surprisingly, it barely got made. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were originally slated to star in a $75 million version of the film back in 2002, but Pitt pulled out to make "Troy" after creative differences with Aronofsky. The director shrank the budget, cut sequences, recast with Jackman and his own fiancee , Rachel Weisz; the resulting film -- call it "The Fountain 2.0" -- at times plays like an epic in outline form. You can feel the missing material like a phantom limb.
The movie opens with a jolt, in the immediate aftermath of a massive, unseen 16th-century battle between Spanish warriors and Mayan defenders. The armored leader , Tomas (Jackman) , makes a desperate assault on the priestly pyramid in an effort to get at the holy mysteries beyond -- perhaps to the Fountain of Youth itself. The noise and the filmmaking here are fearsome, and it's almost as if the frame of the screen itself is buckling in on the conquistador.
Cut to the modern day, where time is running out for Dr. Tommy Creo (Jackman), whose wife , Izzi (Weisz) , is dying of cancer. Tommy works for a high-tech lab run by Dr. Lillian Guzetti (Ellen Burstyn), trying to make tumors in monkeys go away. In a flash of despairing improvisation, he injects a subject with an extract of the bark of a Guatemalan tree, and, lo, miraculous things begin happening. But not to Izzi, and, anyway, is life what she wants or is it just time with her work-obsessed husband?
And then we're 500 years, give or take, in the future, and Jackman is floating through space in a translucent sphere. He's bald and in the lotus position; his name is Tom, suggesting David Bowie's old runaway astronaut Major Tom, and he has pretty much set his controls for the heart of the sun.
Clearly, Aronofsky ("Pi," "Requiem for a Dream") has absorbed "2001: A Space Odyssey" at a molecular level. Just as clearly, he's a filmmaker of originality and genuine daring: the space scenes in "The Fountain" feel freshly minted from some common pan-spiritual consciousness. The 16th-century sequences are stiff and dreamlike; Weisz floats through them as a Queen Isabella reaching out to Tomas to save her country and herself. Clint Mansell's score, played by the Kronos Quartet, keens powerfully throughout.
As for the modern-day segments, Jackman convulses mightily to convince us of Tommy's great grief over his powerlessness -- he may actually do more acting here than in all his other films combined. Aronofsky turns his narrative triangle into three sides of a prism; the stories allude to each other and echo back and forth, and it seems as if you're always seeing through the nearest one into the others.
Yet for all the titanic passions clashing through "The Fountain," its message is fuzzy and thin. Men hector God and demand ever more. Women are accepting earth mothers. Love matters more than science. The movie wanders through these Big Ideas but shies from considering them at length; indeed, Aronofsky's directorial style -- a dazzling anti realism, heavy on the editing -- shuts deeper meaning out.
Instead, he has made a heroic poem that's stronger on hyperbole than lyricism. Bless him for that: If there were more Darren Aronofskys, the multiplex would be a stranger and better place. Flaws and all, "The Fountain" believes in itself more fervently than any other movie you may see this year -- so fervently it doesn't need an audience's faith to exist.