It's love, but not as we know it

Spiritual, sincere and downright silly, this romantic story is weirdly intoxicating

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Figuring out what's happening is one of the challenges in watching The Fountain, which begins in 16th-century Spain and ends somewhere in deep space in the 26th century, possibly on a Tuesday. Another challenge is trying not to laugh. This story of a man's search for eternal life is romantic and endearingly silly. The childlike sincerity of the director, Darren Aronofsky, the hotshot behind Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), gives even the most berserk passages a wayward charm. Sincerity is evident, too, in his lead actor, Hugh Jackman, who appears bald-headed in pyjamas, practising yoga in zero gravity as he drifts through the galaxy in an oversized snow globe. The real achievement is that he keeps a straight face.

Jackman portrays three incarnations of the same man, each one devoted to a woman played by Rachel Weisz. In the present day, he is Tommy Creo, a scientist so consumed by work that he neglects his dying spouse, Izzi, whose life he is trying to save. Rather than enjoying what little time they have left, Tommy hangs out with the chimpanzees into whose brains he has been injecting a compound harvested from Guatemalan trees. You can't blame him - when it comes to personality, the chimps have the edge over Izzi.

She's a lovely girl, given to doing the sorts of enchanting things that no one ever does in real life, like stargazing barefoot in the snow. Smiling beatifically on her deathbed, she looks better than most people do on their wedding day. But she never gets to be more than an idealised blur, a catalyst for the film's exploration of love and grief. It is touching that the role of Izzi is something of a love letter from Aronofsky to Weisz, his real-life fiancée, but perhaps next time he could write it in ink, not syrup.

As her life ebbs away, Izzi is trying to complete a novel called The Fountain, extracts from which we see dramatised. It concerns the shaggy-haired, 16th-century conquistador Tomas (Jackman), who is entreated by the besieged Queen Isabel (Weisz) to find the Tree of Life, which holds the key to immortality. With righteousness and some tight-fitting leather trousers in his favour, Tomas acquits himself well in a set-to with the Mayans, who are presumably disgruntled now that Apocalypto is doing so well and their agents didn't negotiate a slice of the profits.

Intercut with the stories of Tomas and Tommy is a strand following the astronaut Tom as he hurtles through space towards the Xibalba nebula with not so much as an in-flight magazine for company. All he has with him is a gnarled tree and some dislocated memories of a mysterious woman who keeps exhorting him to "Finish it". We know her to be a hallucination of Izzi, whose last wish was for her husband to complete her novel. Tom, who is Tommy reincarnated, turns for solace to his tree, which, it seems fair to conclude, is a reincarnation of Izzi. The three stories converge in a wigged-out sequence in which Tomas quaffs creamy sap from the Tree of Life - think American Pie played straight, though "straight" is the wrong word in this context - and a psychedelic light-show unfolds that will have ageing hippies getting all nostalgic about the first time they dropped acid.

The Fountain hit the headlines four years ago when its original leading man, Brad Pitt, walked off the set. Creative differences were cited, which could mean that the actor baulked at all the sap-drinking and yoga that was expected of him. Or maybe he just couldn't fathom Aronofsky's flights of fancy, which are couched in strangely claustrophobic, almost dingy visuals; at times, the picture resembles 2001: a space odyssey shot in a broom cupboard. But the film's transparent belief in the power of love, and the power of stories about the power of love, can be intoxicating. There's no arguing with the intensity of Jackman's performance, or the conviction of Clint Mansell's forceful score. On the other hand, you could debate the meaning of the film until the chimps come home. The Fountain may be a bit wet in places, but it's certainly fun to splash around in.

Pick of the week

Iraq in Fragments (12A)
dir: James Longley
Documentary comprising three tales of modern Iraq.

Black Book (15)
dir: Paul Verhoeven
Barnstorming Second World War thriller that centres on a Jewish chanteuse in the Dutch Resistance.

Apocalypto (18)
dir: Mel Gibson
Heads will roll in this rather gory portrait of the fall of the ancient Mayan civilisation.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture