Sunday, November 26, 2006

REVIEW: The Fountain

WARNING: Review will contain minor plot spoilers, and is preceded by lengthy Harry Knowles-ish tangential digression. But you'll also get a funny clip from YouTube.

Has this ever happened to you?

You see this girl (YES, I call women my own age girls, and I'm sticking with it.) She's gorgeous. Fascinating. Different. Breath-of-fresh-air. You can tell. Oh, she's pretty, sure... but thats not the important part. That's not what made you look twice. No. It's the "different" part. The "weird" part. Oh, not bad weird. Not "Kathy Bates in 'Misery' weird. No... she's good weird. "Kate Winslet in 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' weird. Helena Bonham Carter in "Fight Club" weird. Off-puttingly-adorable-goth-chick-who-works-at-the-music-store weird. We're all on the same page now, right? HOT weird.

And not just weird... INTERESTING! Maybe you heard her say something super-clever about some obscure topic you swore only you would say something like that about. Maybe it's the tattoo of unidentifiable origin. Maybe it's just the six different dye colors in the hair, whatever it is, you're mind starts going "she's gotta be fascinating. Deep. Talk to her for hours. New surprise every day."

So you're hooked. But you don't just go ask her out. No, of course not. That's what rational, proactive people do. That's what people with guts do. No, your smitten ass has to go "find out" about her. You've gotta ask mutual aquaintances about her. "So-and-so? Eh, don't know her too well outside whatever... but she seems like a TRIP, right?" What's that, you say? She has a LiveJournal!? Well, let me read THAT whole damn thing... WOW! It's so weird, so interesting, you were totally right!

So you ask her out. Finally. And she says yes. You pick yourself up off the floor, and you're PSYCHED. This is it. Good times are coming. She's gonna expand your mind. Thrill your senses. Maybe you'll wake up someplace cool, like a belltower; or in some story-worthy condition, like with fang-marks in you're neck. Or.. y'know, maybe you'll have great connection over dinner, hit it off and begin a meaningful, fulfilling relationship. Either one is good.

And then you actually go on the date and... Meh. Oh, it's not a disaster. She's... nice. Friendly. Pleasant company. Good new aquaintance. But at some point, earlier than you'd have thought, you arrive at a slightly dissapointing feeling: "Hm. She's not quite as 'interesting' as I'd thought she was" (For me, this feeling usually pops up right after "Omigod.. don'tcha just love Meg Ryan?")

Now, to be fair, most of this is your fault. You're a male, so you have largely unrealistic expectations of women, and you're a geek, so the unreality of those expectations is fantastical to the point of absurdity - you're model of the feminine ideal falls somewhere at an intersection between Chun-Li and Lady Ewoyn.

And then, you get another feeling. Probably right around the time she starts in about something "important." Oh, don't misunderstand, she's still cool. Fun. Good new lady-friend. But you've hit a realization that's a definate buzzkill in terms of attraction: "Uh-oh. She's not as interesting as SHE thinks she is."

Eh... y'know what? This "Family Guy" clip says it better than I can:

ACTUAL REVIEW (with minor spoilage) BEGINS HERE

So... finally getting to see "The Fountain" is kind of like that. For me, anyway.

For how long have we been hearing about this movie? This next-step masterpiece from Darren Aronofsky, seemingly doomed but rescued and given a second chance AND a big holiday release? This visual "trip" who's promotions promised a dizzying time-and-mind-bending rush? The trailer's, featuring science labs, Spanish conquistadors, magic trees, flaming swords and bubble-based space flight?? There's that feeling again: It looks different. INTERESTING. HOT weird.

And then you go, you buy the ticket, you're ready to have you're mind blown. Here it comes and... Hm. Oh, it's GOOD. Let's be clear here. This is a solid, well-made, well-acted peice of moviemaking, certainly more original overall than most other things you could be watching right now. And yet... nope. My mind falls kinda short of "blown." My senses decidedly not-shredded. I didn't wake up in the belltower. "It's not as interesting as I thought it'd be," yup. And, sadly, "it's not as deep OR interesting as IT thinks it is," either. In terms of overall effect, it calls to mind no film more than "What Dreams May Come," and somehow I don't think many of us are heading into a promised Darren Aronofsky mind-screw to get the same feeling one gets from a flawed but visually-sumptuous Robin Williams vehicle.

What we have hear are three "parallel" stories which are not exactly parallel but have something or possibly everything to do with one another. In the first, Hugh Jackman is a Conquistador charging into battle against a Mayan shaman to retrieve the sap of the Biblical "Tree of Life" (the "Fountain" of the title is meant as-in "Of Youth," for the record) for his immortality-seeking Queen (Rachel Weisz) who's quest for the Fountain has made her the target of an evil Priest who has deemed her quest blasphemous and is using the power of The Inquisition to impede her.

That story occurs in the pages of a book being written by a cancer-ridden woman (Rachel Weisz again) in the modern-set main story. She's married to a brilliant scientist (Jackman again) who is obsessively trying to save her by researching a miracle cure (get it?) derrived from "a mysterious tree in South America." What he gets could indeed be called a Fountain of Youth... but it doesn't cure cancer. In the "final" story, set in either the real or imagined future, Jackman's scientist is now a bald holy man, practicing Buddhist-style meditations as he hurls through outer space in a magic bubble, the Tree of Life (and his memories) his only companions.

The three stories bend and twist around eachother, eventually wrapping the story up into an intricate narrative not that promises to conceal something deep, profound and fascinating once unfurled. Sadly, that promise isn't quite delivered on, and all the bombast and weirdness eventually appears designed to conceal how simplistic and (sorry, but it's true) predictable and mundane it's themes and messages are.

Tell me, had you heard before that "the quest for Eternal Youth is self-defeating and futile?" Perhaps, I dunno... in every story about Eternal Youth before this? Were you aware that "death is just a part of life?" Or that "you need to learn to let go?" Oh, you were? Well, then, unfortunately "The Fountain" has nothing new to offer you in terms of larger theme, other than the curious way in which it ultra-villianizes it's Spanish Inquisitor villain only to wind up essentially endorsing his opinion on the subject of Eternal Life (despite having previously revealed him as a torturer, murderer, conspirator and hypocrite.) I'm not saying these aren't worthy themes, but really now... wrapping up such routine sentiments in the guise of fractured-narratives and metaphysical dream-imagery is the filmmaking equivalent of trying to improve an average Hallmark card by translating it into Enigma Code.

Taking this route actually worked for Aronofsky last time: A veneer of auteur bravado and gotcha shock-value helped cloak the sucker-punch of "Requiem For A Dream's" eventual revelation as the bluntest "don't do drugs" statement ever filmmed. But this time, while he's made a visually beautiful, well-acted and often deeply moving film; he's also made one that demands a certain amount of intellectual commitment but fails to reward it. "The Fountain" asks it's audience to dig through dense layers of symbolism and narrative trickery, and all that's waiting at the bottom is a "truth" so simplistic (as opposed to "simple") and worn that it would be right at home in a fortune cookie or as a moral lesson from the mouth of Elmo. Heck, if you went through grade school in the 80s or 90s you probably already recieved every "message" this could impart when "Tuck Everlasting" was on the summer reading list.

Still... I'm going to offer that I mostly liked it, and think it's worth a look. Aronofsky has come up short, but he tried hard to offer something unique and different even if he only partially succeeded. And I'm of the mind that we need to encourage that in our filmmakers. He hasn't made a bad film, just one that isn't nearly as good as it ought to be (or, sadly, as it THINKS it is.) And an overall-underwhelming "HOT weird" movie is, like an overall-underwhelming "HOT weird" girl, STILL more fun than a just-plain-boring one of either.

Reccomended... with reservations.