Science fiction is a strange beast. Extending from space fantasy devoid of the sparest scientific pretense to mind-meltingly technical "hard sci-fi" seemingly penned for post-docs, the genre is a container for speculation and existential musing that foils attempts at a content-based definition. Its strength lies in its simultaneous flexibility and depth.
Unfortunately, translations of science fiction to the screen often neuter this philosophical gravitas, under the apparent assumption that the spectacular and the thought-provoking are mutually exclusive. Complex and challenging themes are frequently reduced to casual footnotes or audience-insulting oversimplifications. Michael Crichton's indictment of modern science's inability to cope with a world beyond prediction in his book Jurassic Park becomes the film's crude warning against trespassing in God's domain; Philip K. Dick's inquiry into the nature of reality and identity were excised completely from the theatrical release of Blade Runner; and on and on.
However, there are a handful of auteurs who recognize and embrace science fiction's use of technology as a tool for the deepening exploration of the inner world. Darren Aronofsky is one of them - at 29 he wrote and directed the mathematical thriller (you heard right) Pi, which explores connections between the golden ratio (actually denoted by phi, not pi), "random" fluctuations in the stock market, Jewish mysticism, and the secret language of God in which the world is spoken. It's a movie set in the present, sans lasers or any special effects - but rooted in the obsessive exploration of deeper patterns that characterizes science fiction. In his words, "science is a very structured way to analyze the spiritual world."
Aronofsky's latest film, The Fountain, carries this torch across - and even beyond - time. It tells three parallel stories, revolving around scientist Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman)'s quest to cure his wife Isabel (Rachel Weisz)'s terminal cancer. His search is mirrored (also by Jackman and Weisz) in the past by a Spanish conquistador's journey to rediscover the Tree of Life for his imperiled Queen, and in the future by a haunted astronaut's mysterious intergalactic voyage. The film is a poetic, stunningly beautiful invitation to reconsider our notions of both mortality and immortality - Aronofsky has remarked that behind the implicitly eponymous Fountain of Youth, the film speaks of how "we're all connected through this endless fountain of matter and energy that comes up and goes back down over and over again."
This layering of meanings is an essential element of the film. Outspoken in his fascination for how ideas fit inside one another, Aronofsky threads a clever evolutionary perspective into the movie's grander fabric of truths. Each period, as well as its characters, enfolds and builds upon those that came before it; the obsessions of these three men - one pre-modern, one modern, and one post-modern - are expressed with three different visual vocabularies built from triangles, rectangles, and circles, respectively. The setting is one moment a Mayan temple, the next a sterile operation room, the next a spherical, organic spacecraft. The background is a character: each time has its mythical golden aura, its stars, its tree, its promise ring, its spontaneous revelations. But the meaning in each of these symbols transcends the sum of time-accrued significances. When taken together, the film's stories hint at something hidden, something prior to their superficial details.
The Fountain is a masterful handling of a transcendental truth beyond paradox (the unity-in-diversity) that leaves earlier attempts at a postmodern fable in the dust. A tragic futility and clinging hope pervades each Tom's period-appropriate immortality project; irrespective of technological or psychological capacity, no one of them seems any more (or less) successful than the others. His doomed beloved, in her multiple guises, suffers less than he from the prospect of her demise - a touch that calls into question who is actually the "sicker" of the two (and is one of the film's many not-so-subtle nods to Grace and Grit - not the least of which is a bald and meditating Jackman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Ken Wilber). However, both characters' divergent divine intuitions reunite in the film's final act, when Aronofsky pulls the three plots into an incredible Möbius strip (the word "twist" hardly does it justice).
Other sweet touches abound. Ellen Burstyn has a superb, if minor, turn as the director of Creo's laboratory; an atmospheric score is performed by the exceedingly-appropriate Kronos Quartet and Mogwai; and the film delivers well-researched presentations of Mayan mythology, contemporary senescence research, and speculative space travel technology. It holds an inconceivable space, but could be adapted to the stage with only a little creative set design and lighting (and adaptability is certainly one measure of truth).
Borne into a culture anxious with not only the immanent approach of ancient Mayan prophecy, but with impending radical life extension and the pregnant buzz of an upcoming shift in collective consciousness, The Fountain tears the rug out from under our feet. Suddenly the wait is over; we are waiting on a sigh that already happened - that is always already happening. It is a film that drops its audiences into an altered state, a timeless remembering, and invites them to join in the investigation of an eternal mystery. And, on a more personal level, it's a harbinger of hope - with The Fountain hot on the heels of both A Scanner Darkly and The Prestige, Hollywood might finally be comfortable making sci-fi movies that are both as beautiful and as intelligent as this one.