"...many viewers will hate it...It's nevertheless a transcendent work of art..."

A Story of Love, Death, Spirituality and Existence

(120106) Before contemplating the sublime metaphysical head trip called The Fountain, it's best to remove your shoes and socks. Shave your head. Assume the lotus position. Exhale slowly. Ommmm. Now close your eyes. No, bad idea; then you wouldn't be able to read. Just keep them open while you visualize this:

Hugh Jackman, hairy and bearded, as a conquistador fighting an ancient Mayan priest who tells him that "death is the road to awe." Hugh Jackman, hairy but clean-shaven, operating on a monkey brain as a modern-day cancer researcher. Hugh Jackman, bald, floating inside an orb with a sentient tree as they drift through space toward a golden nebula. He is, like you, in the lotus position.

There you have it: The Fountain, a film that defies description, summation, expectation or any other -tion. Exquisitely beautiful and almost unbearably sad, it is also — no way around this — truly strange. However strange you think it is, it's stranger. Plopping Hugh Jackman into a giant soap bubble isn't the half of it, but it's a fine place to meditate on the movie's oddness. The Fountain is cinema as poetry; romance as revelation; science fiction as prayer. It ponders death, and not as some pale Bergman chess master, but death as a form of ecstasy.

The word from the Venice Film Festival, where The Fountain first saw the light of day, was that the latest work from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) is a dull and pretentious slice of sci-fi silliness, at once too cerebral and too slow-moving. Funny, a lot of folks once said the same thing about Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and now it's routinely considered one of the two or three greatest science fiction films ever made.

Mind you, I'm not placing The Fountain on that esteemed level, but to dismiss this out of hand is to miss the overriding passion that Aronofsky pours into every frame of his wildly uneven but always watch able epic.

As a writer and director, Darren Aronofsky has never been one to shy from either the morbid or the ecstatic, and he's yet to make a conventional film of any kind. His most recent feature, 2000's Requiem for a Dream, concerned four addicts chasing different forms of bliss, while his breakout Pi followed an obsessive math whiz on a quest to find the 216-digit name for God. In Aronofsky's movies, the path to enlightenment — that "road to awe" — isn't lined with wildflowers, unless they're sprouting violently from someone's midriff.

Yes, that happens in The Fountain. A lot happens in The Fountain, though it's barely an hour and a half long. The monkey-brain researcher is married to a terminally ill author (Rachel Weisz, a vision on her own), who's almost finished with a manuscript titled, of course, The Fountain. Her book follows Jackman's conquistador to Central America, where he's been enjoined by Queen Isabella of Spain (Weisz again) to find a mythical pyramid that guards the Tree of Life — which was hidden by God after Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden.

Meanwhile, inside the orb, bald Jackman speaks to a tree (strokes it, loves it, eats it) while the two of them bob through space toward a star formation that might be Xibalbá, the Mayan underworld. Xibalbá is where the dead find new life, we're told. And where the dying author gazes, in rapture, from the snowy roof of her home. It's no accident that she's named Creo, Spanish for "I believe."

Here I'm compelled to say two things. First: This is one outlandish film, and many viewers will hate it. Hate. It. Second: It's nevertheless a transcendent work of art, a vision of undying love that finds hope in grief, epiphany in death and life in the loss of Eden. Trippy visuals (inspired by David Bowie: true fact) and an urgent score (by Clint Mansell, with help from the Kronos Quartet) combine with a quixotic screenplay (by Aronofsky and Ari Handel) and Jackman's guts-bared performance to create a work both foolish and divine.

So, in a way, the film is his version of "2001: A Space Odyssey," and many viewers will enjoy its similarly challenging structure and New Age razzle-dazzle, which is nicely crystallized by some especially imaginative special effects in the climax.

In an era in which even the so-called independent cinema chases formulas and is ruled by a cowardly herd instinct, you really have to admire Aronofsky's guts for making such a risky, uncompromising, spiritual-minded film.

I, for one, was transfixed: eyes wide open, awed.

Directed by:    Darren Aronofsky
Written by:    Screenplay by Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Starring:    Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn
Released:    11/22/06 (USA)
Length:    156 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for some violence.

THE FOUNTAIN © 2006 Warner Bros. Pictures 
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