Loved by some and hated by a whole lot of others, Darren Aronofsky’s latest movie is every bit as weird and, some would say, wonderful, as his previous highly original movies, Pi and Requiem for a Dream.
Tom (Hugh Jackman) is a scientist trying to find a cure for cancer. He is spurred on by a very real problem – his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) has been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. Can he find the cure in time? Izzi doubts it and is more interested in coming to terms with life and death. Can Tom find an equally calm acceptance of mortality? Maybe he’ll find understanding in Izzi’s novel about a Spanish conquistador in search for the Tree of Life in a remote South American jungle.
Meanwhile, a few hundred years earlier, a Spanish conquistador called Tomas (Hugh Jackman again) is sent on a quest by the beautiful Queen Isabella (Rachel Weisz again – can you see where this is going yet?) to find the Tree of Life in a remote South American jungle.
Meanwhile, thousands of years into the future a taichi practising astronaut called Tommy (Hugh Jackman yet again, naturally) is floating in space in a bubble complete with that same Tree of Life.
Will Tom/Tomas/Tommy find the secret of eternal life or will he/they find some other enlightenment? The answers, if you can find them, are wrapped up in three epic tales
Guardian: “There is a strange deadness in the film, together with a callow self-importance and self-pity which become more stultifying with every minute that passes.”
Philadelphia Weekly: “It’s tough to kick a mewing kitten, even one this stupid and ugly.”
Time: “Shouldn’t there be a place in the canon of epic films for a story about a man trying to keep his wife alive? Kids, who think they’ll live for ever, might not hook up to this trope, but adults should.”
Imagine if this movie had starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette, well that’s exactly what Darren Aronofsky did until Pitt walked off the project just weeks before the start of filming. There were artistic difficulties apparently so Brad moved on to the artistically challenged and truly appalling Troy. Then the studio withdrew the money, compensated Cate Blanchette and left Aronofsky with a script but no stars and no cash.
Eventually, at half the original budget, the film got made with Jackman as a very acceptable replacement for Pitt and Rachel Weisz equally fetching in the Blanchette role.
So lets hear it for Darren Aronofsky who stuck to his guns and made his film in spite of the forces of Hollywood evil that assailed him.
But was it worth all the hassle?
If you like sci-fi movies with no alien invaders, epics without small hairy toed creatures fighting dragons or visually imaginative films with obscure plots and more than a touch of the acid trip about them then this should fit the bill.
But if you like a plot that obeys the old rules of beginnings, middles and ends then you should probably give this one a miss.
For all its spectacular effects and giant leaps through time, it is above all a moving tale about a man and a woman, in love and having to face the reality of death.
It is, in fact tackling that big issue, The Meaning Of Life. So lets not knock Darren Aronofsky for lack of ambition.
Ok there is a touch of mystic crap in the futuristic scenes and the actors turn into over the top luvvies for the historical section but, against all the odds, the pieces do come together to make a film that delights the eye and challenges the mind.
The slashed budget meant that there was very little money for computer graphics (alleluia!) so for the outer space sequences they used old fashioned sets, brilliant lighting and then filmed microscopic chemical changes in laboratory dishes transformed into gigantic screen images. The results are truly spectacular.
Aronofsky is nothing if he is not a cinematic stylist and he does a lot with a very little. A hospital corridor is lit with the same rich gold light that distinguishes the Spanish court and the dying star that haunts the storylines. This is contrasted with a bright, washed out, white light that is associated with Izzi/Isabella’s enlightenment. No special effects department could achieve anything more special or more effective.
Hugh Jackman is a natural in the shaggy conquistador role and surprisingly poignant as the shaven headed mystic astronaut doing a very impressive lotus position. He is at his best though in the present day sequences bringing real depth to his scenes of tenderness and grief.
Rachel Weisz isn’t really challenged in the acting department as she spends most of the film either looking very poorly in bed or very queenly behind a screen at the Spanish court. Though she is every bit as good as Cate Blanchette would have been.
The only other sizeable role is for the excellent Ellen Burstyn as Dr. Tom’s medical supervisor who proves yet again that she is the American Judi Dench.
The rest of the cast are just padding to the main action. The Spanish soldiers are yelling hairy rugby types and the medics are nice guys straight from ER or Grey’s Anatomy.
This is a director’s film though – inspired by a visual originality that stays in the memory. The epic scenes are sumptuous to behold but nothing is more impressive than when the screen is filled with Jackman’s back lit stubbly mouth and Weisz’s downy check in an image of powerful tenderness.
Darren Aronofsky is a major talent who, for once, actually needed that extra cash and screen time to expand the film’s complex themes. Sadly it shows the scars of its painful birth – shame on you Brad.
Anything that a nerdy film buff could possibly want in a behind the scenes documentary is here. The makers of The Fountain allowed the documentary filmmakers access to the aborted pre-production work in Australia and then to the actual filming in Canada and Guatemala.
If you were dismissive of the film then at least this documentary will make you admire the skills, the pain and the charm that went into its making.
In a separate piece, Rachel Weisz interviews Hugh Jackman whilst he is being made up for the final day’s filming. He comes across as surprisingly sensitive and thoughtful whilst she shows that she could be a brilliant interviewer if she ever gave up the day job.
Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn