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‘The Fountain’ is a pointless riddle

Though the film is a visual stunner, it provides no answers and has cardboard characters.

Does death represent “the road to awe”? Or is it a disease like any other — just waiting for a cure?

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” asks the big questions and, for an hour and a half, provides only the most tentative of answers. His movie keeps building to some Dolby-speaker-shattering revelation, as its time-tripping hero, Tommy (or Tomas), played by Hugh Jackman, moves from 16th-Century Spain to the 21st Century to somewhere in 26th Century space.

But in the end, it’s hard to say what Aronofsky is trying to say, or why he was given $35 million to trap the audience in what appears to be a riddle without a solution. As a puzzle movie, it’s far less entertaining than his earlier and equally trippy pictures, “Pi” and “Requiem For a Dream.” No wonder Brad Pitt got cold feet and bailed when the picture was originally scheduled to go into production four years ago.

Much of “The Fountain” plays like a long-winded tease, built around Tommy’s modern-day attempts to save his wife, Izzy (Rachel Weisz), from the brain cancer that threatens to destroy her. These episodes are bombastically interwoven with his adventures as a conquistador who confronts the ancient Mayans (Weisz turns up as Queen Isabella) and his sudden appearances as a monk-like astronaut in deep space.

There’s a hint that Tommy and Isabel are also Adam and Eve, banished from the garden of Eden. There’s even a gnarly tree that plays a pivotal role in their odyssey and is apparently meant to represent the Fountain of Youth. Tommy keeps returning to it, always on the brink of communing with its ancient bark.

Like all of Aronofsky’s movies, this one is a visual stunner. Especially captivating are his rhyming images of dying stars and floating candles and Christmas lights, which seem interchangeable in the cramped universe he’s created. When Jackman performs a shadowy, choreographed kung-fu number, blotting out the tiny lights with his limbs, the magic of the moment is irresistible.

Top honors go to production designer James Chinlund, who worked on “Requiem,” and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who shot both “Pi” and “Requiem” and again does wonders with limited resources. They’ve once more realized their director’s vision; they’re just not required to provide an explanation for it.

Jackman and Weisz do what they can to rise above the cardboard used to mold the various incarnations of the characters they play, but they never make a compelling case for the lovers. While we’re supposed to care whether Tommy and Izzy can or cannot live together forever, the relationship lacks resonance. Only the repetition of a key moment, during which Tommy must decide between work and play with the tempting Izzy, gathers any emotional force.

“The Fountain” already has a growing fan base made up of admirers who willingly compare it to such hypnotic classics as “Solaris” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Its midnight-movie future seems assured. But mostly it proves that one person’s profundity is another’s fortune cookie.