Hugh Jackman accomplishes a lot in The Fountain: He levitates, fights Mayans as a 16th-century conquistador, possibly discovers a way to reverse aging as a 21st-century cancer researcher, lives off the sap of a tree while floating through space in a futuristic orb, and cries copious tears, usually in close-up. Do all of these feats belong in one movie? By any usual standard, no. But Darren Aronofsky, director of Pi and Requiem For A Dream, clearly didn't set out to make a usual movie. A romantic fantasy played out in three interlocking strands, The Fountain sets out to do nothing less than dramatize the human ambition to transcend time and space in the form of a love story played out across several centuries. It's a story of overreaching that itself overreaches, but that might have been impossible to avoid. Any film that concludes with an explosive demonstration of the universe's incomprehensible vastness wouldn't feel right if it felt perfect.
Jackman co-stars with Rachel Weisz, who plays queen to his explorer in the film's earliest section, sending Jackman on a quest that eventually leads him in search of a heavily guarded tree that might contain the secret of eternal life. In the contemporary segments, she plays his dying wife, writing the story of that conquistador quest as Jackman experiments with a radical therapy derived from a mysterious South American tree. And in the scenes of Jackman floating through space—whose spectacular effects were accomplished without CGI—she's the spectral presence he hopes to revive by traveling with, yes, a magical tree.
Not since John Boorman's Excalibur has a film worn its Jungian imagery so unashamedly. If the scenes of the 21st-century Jackman and Weisz didn't play out so movingly, The Fountain might exist solely in the realm of symbols and ideas. Their flesh, blood, and tears (and more tears) keep it grounded, however, giving Aronofsky the license to take his long-delayed, doggedly pursued film over the top in other respects. Viewers not attuned to his heartfelt, bombastic Richard Wagner-by-way-of-2001: A Space Odyssey lyricism might be better off looking elsewhere. But they'll never see anything else quite like it.