Five years after its release, The Fountain remains both admirably ambitious and hugely (unintentionally) funny. (For a good portion of the movie a futuristically bald Hugh Jackman tends to a dying tree—in space; the movie's deadly serious present-day sections feature brain surgeries performed on a monkey named Donovan.) But over time The Fountain's sincerity has also become a bit more disarming—especially in light of the proudly derivative Black Swan, the frigid schlock of which suggests the filmmaker is still smarting from the tepid reception of his most nakedly personal work.
The Fountain, at 96 minutes a fleet journey, cuts clumsily among a conquistador questing after the Tree of Life, a present-day cancer-cure researcher facing the loss of his wife (Rachel Weisz) from said disease, and a pajama-wearing martial artist hurtling through the universe in some sort of oversized bubble of a spaceship. The movie's three Jackman characters—the conquistador, the scientist, and the space traveler—are each involved in separate monomaniacal searches for sources of eternal youth.
The Fountain's production history, tracked religiously by Ain't It Cool News and similar movie-rumor sites, might at least partially explain why the movie feels so malformed. The film was originally set to star Brad Pitt, at a reported budget of $70 million. But the actor bailed in 2002, weeks before shooting was scheduled to start, making him for a time a fanboy persona non grata. Production was shut down. Aronofsky eventually returned to the project, but with a drastically reduced budget.
The film, in retrospect, seems to be Aronofsky's attempt to elevate the overriding theme of his oeuvre—the degradation of the body, or the overwhelming fear of it—out of the gutter realm of junkies (Requiem for a Dream) and PED users (The Wrestler) and into the lofty plane of cosmic mythology. But the The Fountain's general bombast feels out of keeping with its schematic, sketchy story—betraying more than any other piece of Aronofsky shock-theater the flimsiness, the self-evidence, of the director's chosen theme.
And while his fundamental prison-of-the-body concern hasn't changed, Aronofsky still appears to be in a post-Fountain creative retreat. He has made two films since. Before Black Swan came that other awards-season hit, The Wrestler, a bit of strained realism that also chronicled manifold insults to the body of its athlete-performer protagonist, an over-the-hill grappler played by Mickey Rourke. By frequently training his camera on the back of the head of his lead actor (claustrophobic "follow" shots cribbed from the Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne), Aronofsky seemed to signal that he was also humbly working at ground level toward his own career resurrection.
The Wrestler finds the director dutifully going through the male-weepie motions, but his attention sporadically seems to wander, as evidenced by his distracted, and distracting, fetishization of outmoded technologies (VHS, NES). Black Swan likewise feels thoroughly unoriginal, but Aronofsky solves his attention-deficit problem by throwing in as many influences as possible (The Fly, Repulsion, Persona, etc.). Whatever the case, the recycled frenzy of Black Swan is enough to make you wish Aronofsky had another legitimately go-for-broke Fountain in him.