Exit to Eden

“The Fountain”Warner Brothers PicturesWritten and directed by Darren AronofskyStarring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Mark Margolis, Cliff Curtis and Sean Patrick ThomasRated PG-13/96 minutesOpens Nov. 22Three-and-a-half out of four stars

We are too cynical. We lack imagination. Even when filmmakers try to think big, they lack the conviction to see it through–probably for fear that audiences simply won’t accept something too different from what they’re used to.

And if that’s the case, then Darren Aronofsky is as fearless as they come. His long-gestating dream project, “The Fountain,” is a hugely ambitious endeavor, flawed, but beautifully realized. This is a film that tries to connect on levels emotional and philosophical, spiritual and cosmic.

Convoluted? Yes. And fascinating.

These days, our fantasies are easy to digest and, often, unchallenging. This one isn’t. This is Aronofsky’s attempt to examine love and death and, yes, the meaning of life, and he does so through the story of one man’s millenium-long quest to discover everlasting life and save the woman he loves.

The storyline, which plays like a visual poem rather than a traditional plot, involves three parallel stories centering around Tom (Hugh Jackman) and Izzi (Rachel Weisz).

In the 16th century, she is the queen of Spain and he is a humble conquistador searching for the tree of life. In modern day, she is dying of cancer and he is a doctor desperately trying to discover a cure. And centuries in the future, he is floating in a bubble in space (conjuring thoughts of the star child in “2001: A Space Odyssey”), still trying to find a way to defy death.

When so many people try to toe the line between artistic value and mainstream acceptance, what a thrill it is to see a filmmaker taking a chance. And, like most films that go against the grain, “The Fountain” will polarize people. No doubt some will call it a masterpiece; others will see it as a messy disaster. Internet critic Steve Rhodes says it’s one of the worst movies ever made.

Then again, Steve Rhodes is an idiot.

Others will say it’s the best movie of the year.

What some people won’t get is that “The Fountain” doesn’t need to be completely understood to be effective. In fact, it might be best if the big picture remains an enigma. The film is as sentimental as it is philosophical; in both regards, its questions (and answers) to the plot are difficult, and that is part of the film’s power. Aronofsky’s vision may break down from time to time, but there is something at the center of it that is captivating and heartbreaking.

The rising filmmaker, who previously made “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” isn’t content to be tied down to one idea. “The Fountain,” regardless of quality, is an impeccably thought-out film. The ways Aronofsky conveys his messages, in both the writing and the visuals, is interesting even when the film falters. Aronofsky is a stunning visual artist, and the way he combines elements of all three time periods in “The Fountain” only adds to the film’s universality.

“The Fountain” is a difficult film to discuss except with one who has already seen it. It’s one that practically demands repeat viewings. There are a lot of different factors that play in here, and while they don’t all work, we do get a strong sense of the bigger picture once things begin to come together at the end–and boy, do they ever come together.

Literally. You’ll understand when you see it.

There’s a lot to take from “The Fountain,” which is why it ultimately succeeds. It can be an emotional experience, a thought-provoking one or just a visually dazzling one. But there’s something real and substantive at work here. Aronofsky originally envisioned the film as a $90-million epic a few years ago before studios and cast members backed out. But he returned to the project, pared down the material and created a smaller picture that nonetheless, he said, captured the essence of his original vision. In that light, the finished product is made even more interesting by what it could have been.

Indeed, the film could have benefited from more screen time, which would have given more weight to the characters and given Aronofsky more time to develop his story, literally and thematically. Perhaps then the film’s fantastical ending would have had an even greater effect than it already does.

We’ll never know. We just have to take “The Fountain” for what it is now–fascinating, yet imperfect, beautiful and uncompromisingly strange.

“I see?I see?I see life! And it’s an old man beating a pigeon with a hickory stick. Huh. Disappointing.” Hugh Jackman discerns the world’s mysteries in “The Fountain.”