This review was originally published at Christianity Today.

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.

But Aronofsky shouldn’t be punished for his seriousness. The film’s solemnity is appropriate for its subject matter, and it reflects the artist’s sincerity. It’s not often that moviegoers have such a tangible sense of the storyteller’s own struggle to work through personal experiences, questions, and fears. (It’s worth noting that both of Aronofsky’s parents have survived bouts with cancer. And, in the past year. he’s become a father. Experiences like that can make a philosopher out of you.) And in a time when few films have the courage to say anything more than “seize the day,” isn’t it refreshing to find someone willing to take cosmic questions seriously?

Spiritual exploration seems to be Aronofsky’s forte, after all. His first film, Pi, told a troubling tale about a headache-prone mathematical genius who began to suspect that God was speaking to him through the numbers. The next film, Requiem for a Dream, portrayed people succumbing to addictions of all kinds, looking for satisfaction and solace in all the wrong places. Each project has been risky, experimental, and uniquely philosophical. In The Fountain, it becomes clear that Aronofsky believes our sufferings stem from both spiritual and physical lack. So his characters take dangerous risks in order to find healing for their bodies and their hearts.

Scripture tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts, and it is that very principle we see at work here. J.R.R. Tolkien convinced C.S. Lewis that fairy tales and legends have similar themes and events because all human cultures have a sense of “the true myth”—that is, the gospel. Aronofsky is picking up on gospel truth in mythology and the world’s religions, and tracing them in hopes of arriving at a profound revelation.

So, does it all lead to a profound revelation? Unfortunately, no.

Despite its brave exploration of essential questions, The Fountain fails to lead us to any substantial conclusions. Tom and Izzy give us an affecting picture of our need for humility and love. But for all of their talk about the Tree of Life, the characters seem curiously uninterested in God himself. And they don’t seem overly concerned with what might have separated us from the Tree of Life in the first place—namely, sin. They’re more interested in finding eternal life through their own striving. These pilgrims seem preoccupied with, as one character puts it, achieving grace.

Further, the film’s title refers to a rather troubling and ambiguous picture of “eternal life.” In Aronofsky’s view, it seems that we’re part of an eternal “recycling,” our lives eventually becoming fertilizer, from which some new reality springs. That seems to stray from the Christian idea of resurrection, in which Christ declares victory over death—rather than surrender to it.

Nevertheless, The Fountain is a challenging film about humanity’s mad struggle to find a cure for our condition, and Aronofsky is clearly a man on a spiritual journey. While some critics are jumping at the opportunity to sneer and call the whole thing ludicrous, this brave filmmaker deserves applause for giving us a work that is uncompromisingly bold and heartfelt. In spite of its flaws, it merits comparison with such daring and personal visions as Malick’s The New World, Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Nor are we often blessed with portrayals of a meaningful, passionate marriage like this one. In Jackman and Weisz, the director finds two actors willing to go as far as his imagination will take them.

Jackman, who stepped in when Brad Pitt dropped out of the project, commits fully to the demands of his role—even shaving his head for the sake of space travel. In his busiest year yet—X-Men: The Last Stand, Scoop, The Prestige, Flushed Away, andHappy Feet—this is his most vigorous work.

And while it would have been great to see Aronofsky’s original choice for Izzy, Cate Blanchett, play the part, Weisz—an arresting actress in her own right—is effortlessly appealing and endearing. (She also happens to be the director’s fiancée.)

Together, they deliver some wonderfully intimate moments, including one in a bathtub that’s much more affecting than … well … the last time we saw Rachel Weisz acting from a bathtub. (Who really wants to remember Constantine?)

The Fountain‘s colorful supporting cast reunites Aronofsky with Requiem’s Ellen Burstyn, and includes Ethan Suplee (TV’s My Name Is Earl) and Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider). But their characters don’t have much to do except criticize Tom’s desperation and sigh over Izzy’s dilemma.

If the film earns any Oscars, they’re likely to go to the special effects team for their awe-inspiring work. They’ve set an admirable example, creating amazing visions without the massive expense of digital animation. (The original budget for the film was $75 million; the final budget, $35 million. Now that’s what I call savings!) The Fountain’s effects are almost entirely handcrafted. The spectacular imagery of the film’s outer-space finale was achieved through micro-photography, capturing the behavior of chemicals in petri dishes. Sometimes, a step backward may be the best way to break new ground.

The attractive set designs help us navigate easily from one thread of storytelling to the other. And they continually reflect the spiritual journey of the heroes by showing us glimmers of light at the end of long, dark passageways. Aronofsky’s faithful cinematographer, Matthew Libatique (who also filmed Inside Man), frames this artfully and beautifully.

While it won’t be everybody’s cup of science fiction, The Fountain is likely to inspire other artists to take chances and illustrate their own spiritual journeys with passion and imagination. And hopefully, moviegoers will seize this opportunity to consider and discuss what these three stories represent: the sufferings we endure in our exile from Eden, and that nagging notion that we were meant for everlasting life.