The Fountain

Starring Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, and Ellen Burstyn. Rated PG.

Back in 1998, Darren Aronofsky made a low-budget black-and-white gem of a movie called Pi, following up this debut effort with Requiem for a Dream, a minor masterpiece that, in many ways, was superior to the Hubert Selby Jr. novel on which it was based.

So to say that expectations for The Fountain, the director’s third feature, were running high among indie-film fans would be an understatement, even after the picture lost more than half of its original $72 million budget in the wake of Brad Pitt’s last-minute defection.

But what the hell. Surely, with $35 million, this cinematic visionary would show us things we’d never seen before? Sadly, the answer is “No.” There are so many things wrong with The Fountain that it’s hard to determine where the autopsy should begin.

The idea is certainly intriguing enough. Hugh Jackman plays the same character in three different time periods: the 16th, 21st, and 26th centuries. The first Tomas Creo is a conquistador trying to find in the New World the tree of life mentioned in the Book of Genesis. The second Creo, Tommy, is a medical researcher feverishly attempting to cure his wife’s brain tumour, while the third, Tom, is drifting in a crystal ball toward a dying nebula in a bizarre attempt to resurrect the woman he has loved, in one form or another, for the past thousand years.

Told in nonlinear fashion, the story keeps us waiting for revelations about what’s really going on—but these are few and far between.

This problem is exacerbated by the artificiality of just about everything that we see. What should look like magic all too often resembles expensive cheese. Indeed, the terrible final sequences might have embarrassed Alexandro Jodorow ­sky back in his El Topo days. And then there’s the ahistoricism. Aronofsky seems to be somewhat uncertain as to when the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan empires ended, both geographically and historically, while his understanding of the relationship between the Spanish crown and its religious thought police is, to put it kindly, seriously flawed.

Worst of all, perhaps, is his infatuation with Rachel Weisz, who is in real life the writer-director’s fiancée. Basically, she doesn’t do anything throughout the entire movie except look beautiful, childlike, and wistful. This might be how her husband-to-be sees her, but the rest of us would like to watch someone a little more proactive. So after the final credit has rolled, one would have to say that The Fountain is a folly—not an Orson Welles–sized folly, to be sure, but one of the Vincent Ward (What Dreams May Come) variety.

And one can only hope that Aronofsky learns from this experience that being very, very good is not the same as being indisputably great.