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