Question: What do a 16th-century conquistador, a 21st-century medical researcher, and a 26th-century astronaut have in common?
Answer: A longing for eternal life.
That's the premise of Darren Aronofsky's three-strand film The Fountain. In this dazzling new science fiction mind-bender, we learn that our sufferings are caused by our separation from the Tree of Life mentioned in the book of Genesis.
Hugh Jackman, in his most challenging role to date, plays Tommy Creo, a present-day scientist laboring zealously in a laboratory to find a cure for cancer. There's a reason for his determination—his beautiful young wife, Izzy, is suffering from an aggressive brain tumor. Science, Tom believes, is the only way to save her. More specifically, the bark of a mysterious South American tree may be the miracle cure he's been seeking.
But in his frantic rush to find the answer, Tom is missing out on what may be Izzy's last days. His quest illustrates what can happen when fear overpowers love. He's right to desire her healing, but clearly this cure-seeking obsession is narrowing his vision, so that he neglects Izzy's need for intimacy and spiritual healing as well.
Meanwhile, Izzy—played by the radiant Rachel Weisz—is responding to her affliction with art. She's composing a novel that dramatizes her own soul-searching. And that narrative provides The Fountain's second thread—the story of the queen and the conquistador.
In scenes from Izzy's novel, filmed in extravagant detail and color, Queen Isabel of Spain (Weisz, again) is besieged by Inquisitors who belong to a Gnostic distortion of the Christian church. This crusading church believes that the spirit cannot be saved unless the body is deplored, abused, and cast aside. But Queen Isabel stubbornly rejects this heresy. Determined to demonstrate that eternal life—eternal bodily life—is possible, she sends her Catholic servant, the conquistador (Jackman), on a mission to find that legendary tree so they can live forever. She believes that the Genesis story mirrors ancient Mayan mythology, which points to the secret location of the tree. In journeying to find it, the conquistador will help her resist what could be called a "culture of death" being advanced by the church.
Writing this historical fantasy brings Izzy some solace. While she is the one facing death, she's the one learning to cherish and savor every moment of her life. Sitting on the roof with her despairing husband, she tries to encourage him by pointing out the beauty of a dying star.
That bit of stargazing gives us an entry point to the film's third thread—a story set far in the 26th-century. A meditative astronaut (Jackman, of course) is questing through the galaxy in the merest of starships—a transparent bubble—when he suddenly finds himself in the pull of a vast and colorful nebula.
Sound ponderous? It is. The Fountain staggers awkwardly under the weight of its own ambition. A little more levity and character development—especially in the stories of the conquistador and the astronaut—might have helped. Aronofsky lays down one layer of visual metaphor after another, and loads his characters' statements with melodramatic severity, to the point that many will have a hard time taking it seriously.