The Fountain is an exercise in pulp mysticism that, overflowing with ponderous enigma, universal patterns, and eternal recurrences, touches all bases in its first few minutes. An opening invocation of Genesis and a close-up of a golden cross segue to a crib from that sacred text, Raiders of the Lost Ark: A fiery Spanish conquistador (Hugh Jackman) is trapped by a horde of growling natives in a jungle cul-de-sac; he escapes by climbing a sacred pyramid to go mano a mano with their flaming high priest. There's a cosmic cut -- in the film. Now a bald astronaut who travels in a full lotus position, Jackman wakes up screaming across the snow-globe universe.
Not nearly as pleasurably tacky as a description might make it sound, Aronofsky's historical phantasmagoria jumps between three time zones. There's the 15th-century derring-do, in which Rachel Weisz's glamorous Queen Isabella sends Jackman's conquistador to find the Tree of Life and bring back the Sap of Immortality. There's a present-day melodrama, in which Weisz appears as the free-spirited Izze, dying of brain cancer while her renegade medical-researcher spouse, Tom (Jackman), races against time to create a cure. Adding to the mystery, Izze is writing a novel called The Fountain, which is actually the conquistador story, and which she begs her husband to complete. (The movie's most impressive special effect is this leather-bound tome written entirely in longhand without a single blotch, erasure, or correction.) Finally and least explicably, there's Tom's 26th-century astral projection.
Izze who? Are you what? Together these avatars gaze at the Mayan death star, sit beneath the world-tree Yggsdrasil, and make love in a cozy bathtub. Weisz, the auteur's own inamorata, is accorded many close-ups. She's able to carry them, smiling bravely through the tears and claptrap. For his part, Jackman plays Dr. Tom at his most Wolverine-ish -- a perfectly grizzled, broodingly ungracious loner given to explosions of sour petulance. At one point, he instructs his nonplused research team to "stop aging -- stop dying, that's our goal." (And create democracy in Iraq while you're at it.) Ellen Burstyn, a graduate of Aronofsky's 2000 skagfest Requiem for a Dream, appears as Tom's ineffectually scolding but secretly loving supervisor.
Part fairy tale, part weepie, part frustrated bodice-ripper, and part film-loop in which beatific Izze invites distracted Tom for a walk (and is grouchily turned down) six times, The Fountain is a movie that prefers celestial whiteouts to prosaic fades and, when it comes to visual emphasis, privileges the overhead zoom above all. It's as busy as the hotel lobby that seemingly served as the decorating model for Tom's lab. By the time the hero's 26th-century self levitates through the deliquescing woods between the worlds and the layers of the cosmic onion to the golden birth canal, Izze's injunction to "finish it" has taken on a new and not particularly occult meaning.
What The Fountain lacks in coherence, it makes up in ambition. Aronofsky has not only aspired to make the most strenuously far-out movie of the 21st century, but the greatest love story ever told. Lest anyone imagine The Fountain to have been written by Madonna's kabbalah teacher after a week spent pondering El Topo and dancing to the Incredible String Band, the words "By Darren Aronofsky" are twice inscribed during the final credits. The third inscription will reveal itself in 500 years.