The Fountain (2006) Sci-fi religious fun

A film which is 484 on Empire’s list of 500 Greatest Films you’d think, even for it’s low rank, might have achieved more widespread acknowledgement, but having bought Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 sci-fi adventure for £3 this weekend, no-one I’ve spoken to seems to have heard of it. To be fair neither had I, but for £3 I thought it was worth a watch.

Originally, The Fountain started filming in 2002 with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett on a huge studio funded budget, which was slashed and the project abandoned when Aronofsky wouldn’t incorporate Pitt’s script amends. Production started again in 2005 with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as the leads and a severely reduced budget – all of which promoted a creative flair for effects without (refreshingly) the need for CGI.

The Fountain follows three interwoven narratives that take place in the age of conquistadors, the modern-day period, and the far future. Jackman’s character is a futuristic astronaut, a modern day research scientist and Spanish conquistador, who journey’s through time attempting to stop the fate of his beloved “Izzi”. The film discusses themes of life, rebirth, mortality and our eternal relationships.

Aronofsky uses a quote from Genesis to start The Fountain making clear reference to the two trees in the garden of Eden; the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. The latter was hidden and protected after the fall of man. The fall of man separated man from maker with “death” ultimately being what makes us unique as only we can experience it and it is the force which re-unites us with our maker.

Jackman’s character as the conquistador literally seeks the Tree of Life out of the Guatemalan Mayan pyramids and jungles. As a scientist, he desperately seeks the scientific knowledge to “cure” death, treating it like “any other disease”. It’s only as the yoga-practising, futuristic astronaut, haunted by visions of Izzi, that he accepts that death is the only way to be re-united with both maker and his eternal love. Ironically as an astronaut he travels with a tree, similar to the Tree of Life in the Mayan temple, which dies moments before he chooses his fatal ending.

There is a precise and calculated use of repeated imagery throughout The Fountain: the stars hanging in the distance space behind the orb-space craft, the hanging candles of the Spanish palace and the astrological research Izzi delights in at the lab all show a hidden agenda between showing the relationship between light and dark: life and death. The use of light is also part of the physical presence of the actors with Jackman existing in the shadows and Izzi highlighted and pinpointed by shards of light (in the snow filled doorway, in the museum sunbeam, in the palace throne) to further separate the two lovers.

The film ends as Xibalba (the dying star of the Mayan underworld) collapses and supernovas destroying and scattering the astronaut’s body into the dead tree rejuvenating it. In the present day the scientist is seen planting a tree seed over Izzi's grave, symbolising his acceptance of his wife's death. At the same moment, in the sky above, we see Xibalba's supernova event.

The Fountain is difficult to get into, this is coming from someone who loves films which don’t offer easy or obvious narratives, so you can understand my point. The narrative feels too jarred to seamlessly interweave the three stories. The use of imagery and effects is impressive, especially for the creative alternatives to CGI, but the cinematography of the film is a bit overbearing at times.

I get that we are steadily taken from darkness into light, it’s just that that dichotomy is too broken by having to switch from the dark and light parts of the story. The visual style obviously has to be sacrificed in order to interweave the narrative, otherwise it would be very boring, predictable and linear. It’s just the conquistador’s Mayan adventure is sooo dark and the supernova moment with the astronaut is sooo light that’s it’s unpleasantly obvious.

I love the idea that Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchet were almost the lead roles, it seems impossible they would have been appropriate after watching Jackman and Weisz. Blanchet I think would have been too ethereal and mysterious (too tempting to slip into ‘Galadrial’ I suspect) for the role of Izzi - this would have made it so much harder to relate to her as real, dying person. Pitt, even though I think he’s a credible actor, wouldn’t have managed the broody, dark persona that Jackman seems to so easily create. Not that Jackman turns into a pseudo Wolverine, far from it, there are glimmers of genuine vulnerability and innocence in his performance, I think it’s more his onscreen, physically presence is far more suited than Pitt’s.

Best scene: Hugh Jackman entering Xibalba and his body pouring away like sand, it reminded me of ‘Sunshine’ and is a mind-etchingly vibrant moment in the film.

Score: 3.5 out of 5, very interesting to try and work it out and lots of great acting, just not sure I got the point of it without the help of the Internet.

Digital Lynch: The end?

After Mulholland Drive (2001) Lynch is “done” with film. Celluloid is slow, big, cumbersome, disjointed, scratched, and “ancient technology” so Lynch decides to tackle his latest shiny, new toy and is like a puppy at Christmas with the idea of digital film making. Digital, in contrast, is lightweight, smooth, fast there is an immediacy which is almost addictive, instant editing, autofocus all allows for the full artist's freedom from the clunky technical requirements of celluloid.

For Lynch you can see why this is so important, the ability to zoom in close to a scene (without the constraints of a boom operator, grips, camera men) the financial freedom of knowing a scene can keep going without the audio whirl of money being spent (celluloid films are expensive which is why we can “thank” digital for making programmes like Big Brother financially viable.). The organic nature of digital seems to fit Lynch’s creative vision so well, if a director can keep focused on a scene, keep seeing what is unveiled from the actors, the subtle changes in pace, emotion or tension then the end result will surely be better. There’s no one likes to dwell on a scene more than Lynch, his love of “quiet” space to jar so aggressively against “loud” space in his films is unique and as a auteur it’s almost what defines him.

Digital production

So as we’ve established digital production allows for self indulgence. With whizzy cameras and the right editing software digital film-making has been blown open to the masses, allowing everyone to edit, prepare and distribute at a click of a button their film to a potential audience of millions with little cost. For Lynch, this means two fingers to the studios who for so many years tried to control his vision, making it available to the masses, but on their commercial terms. As an auteur Lynch in a digital world is completely free and don’t we know it.

Inland Empire is a film you can appreciate but not love, easy to respect as an experiment, hard to sit through. Without the outside perspective of a studio boss, Lynch’s freedom runs wild, his love of fractured identities, disjointed stories (Twin Peaks style) takes on an existentialist quality of its own, leaving even hardcore Lynch fans somewhat hungering for closure on at least one storyline.

Much like Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire started out as an experiment, a series of monologues with leading lady and Lynch favourite Laura Dern. Fragments which become feature.

Digital quality

What is lost with digital? The compressed nature of digital files means that the “warmth” of film has been coldly wiped away, one megapixel at a time. The richness that comes from analogue distortions has been replaced with cold technical silence (there’s no background click, buzz or whir or the camera in those “silent” moments). As an audience we de-value digital – it misses the “luxury” quality we associate with celluloid – we like our TV to look like film afterall (Sopranos, ER etc)

Digital distribution

With little cost involved with production, surely digital ensures a healthy profit when it comes to distribution? Inland Empire was distributed by Lynch but as with all new technologies not all cinema’s had caught up with the digital trend and as such as limited ways to show the film. Using the Internet to launch the marketing, Lynch has used viral, communities and blogs to his advantage to gather the force of hardcore fans to leave their home comforts and head for the cinema. But why? A digitally produced movie, using digital components to edit, produce and add a digital soundtrack, using digital mediums to drive traffic and interest and then ask people to leave their digital arena and watch it in a cinema? A holistic effort gone too far. These digital fans were already with Lynch, they were sat there waiting for the film, in an instant he could have uploaded the movie and in another instant millions could have seen it.

Digital reception

Nope. This is not how Lynch wants you to see the film. He’s old school at heart. The tiny nuances of his soundtracks, his imagery, his cinematography, the painstakingly hand-carved film sets are not there to be viewed on your MP3 or PC. Hell no. This is a “putrified, false” experience according to Lynch.

The freedom of digital comes with a price. Death of the auteur, in a digital world a director has even less freedom to control how people view his work. What makes movies great is the tension between artistic freedom and business between culture/ industry. Let’s face it, a I pod with great headphones will probably let you hear those tiny nuances better than an old cinema with fading Dolby surround sound.

The question is now, is Lynch done with film? Will he next turn full circle and with the artistic and financial freedom of digital return to “moving pictures” will the artistic ambitions of youth finally be realised?