Overlooked Movie Monday: The Fountain

by Phil Fava on February 14, 2011

in Columns,Overlooked Movie Monday

“Death is the road to awe.”

Hugh Jackman The Fountain 2006With “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler”—two handheld, gritty, comparatively magnificent pieces of work—now under his belt, Darren Aronofsky might see a second wave of consideration and approbation wash over his grossly misunderstood romantic sci-fi epic from 2006, “The Fountain.”

The film’s IMDb rating is 7.4/10, but its scores on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes are decidedly split, with a broad stroke of disapproval from more mainstream outlets and demographics. Similar hardships have been endured by other game-changing science fiction classics, like “2001” or “The Terminator.” It may very well be a rite of passage.

Alternating between three stories running parallel to one another over a period of a thousand years, “The Fountain” is a troubling examination of its propellant themes if nothing else. It is troubling not only in its insistence on implication over explanation, but in the very nature of what it sets out to do.

Hugh Jackman stars as Tomas, Tommy, and Tom, the central characters in each of their respective stories taking place 500 years apart, and Rachel Weisz is the recurring woman that their quests exist in the service of, whether in the form of self-deluded good intentions or not. Tomas is a conquistador in 16th century Spain, Tommy is a doctor in the modern United States, and Tom is a 26th century space traveler in Buddhist garb whose vessel is a golden orb co-inhabited by a large, dying tree.

Tree of Life The Fountain 2006The three coinciding protagonists are deeply engaged in separate pursuits to conquer death; Tomas is looking for the biblical Tree of Life in South American jungles, Tommy is looking for a cancer cure in a similar vein, and Tom is heading for the Xibalba (a realm of the Mayan Underworld) nebula to be reborn. These threads are ambiguously rendered, interchangeably metaphorical, and at least one is fictitious even in the universe of the film.

And difficulty in pinning  down and reconciling them is what’s perhaps easiest to dismiss about it. Or maybe it’s the notion of needing to decode something that turns people off.

Either way, there’s no shortage of interpretive possibilities in this particular case, and it’s something of a task in appreciating or developing any serious response to a film without at least understanding its course of action from A to B.

Before his recent foray into the grainy neo-realism of the aforementioned (and critically acclaimed) “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky was primarily known as an overzealous visual stylist, and “The Fountain” is a profound example of what’s possible with ingenuity and minimal CGI. Using macro photography of chemical reactions in bizarre configurations, outer space is conveyed in a wholly fresh visual context, replete with pockets of golden light and shimmering space dust cascading them.

The earthbound cinematography is just as sumptuous. Weisz as the Spanish Queen Isabel is perpetually glowing in stark closeups, and the visualization of the Tree of Life (a notable exception to the film’s nearly CGI-free FX methodology) nestled at the edge of a stone platform on the far side of a reflecting pool is truly indelible. Aronofsky doesn’t have much patience for subdued imagination in the interest of forced subtlety.

Hugh Jackman The Fountain 2006But at its core, “The Fountain” is a meditation on the thematic strands of love, death, immortality, and, ultimately, life. It’s science fiction applied to the ubiquitous concerns of the human heart, and probably has more in common with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” than other contemporary sci-fi fare of its disposition.

It’s a powerful visual and emotional exercise, mutually justifying in their excess, and it stands alongside his other work as a hugely successful, deeply felt achievement.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael Bird February 14, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Favorite film. Ever.

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2 Greg February 14, 2011 at 12:13 pm

I love this movie. Still my favorite of his by a good margin and did quite enjoy Black Swan.

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3 Reed February 14, 2011 at 12:44 pm

I wonder how much this film suffered due to the mid-stream shutdown and re-start. I really dig it. It’s a deep movie. But there’s no question that it feels a bit disconnected – almost unpolished. My one-word-review was “challenging,” but that’s really meant as a compliment. Despite its flaws, there’s a ton of stuff to appreciate here.

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4 Trey Hock February 14, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I think “The Fountain” is a great choice for OMM. It’s not a perfect film, but it definitely deserved a lot more credit and acclaim than it received. Nice review, Phil.

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5 Jay January 28, 2013 at 4:04 pm

What’s amazing about this film is the context in which it is shown. The context of our current state of consciousness of humanity, at least here in the West of english speaking society. You find many references to this movie as being Science Fiction, when in fact ( speaking from experience ) his what many refer to as the future life traveling through the cosmos is but him already being physically dead and doing his past lives review and taking stock of his beliefs. It is in this dimension of life where your outer world is much more acutely reflected by your beliefs hence the “spaceship” amongst other elements of his condition. What he is doing is reviewing through time while his space is limited ( the bubble with the tree ). When he comes close to resolving all his past he also merges that space and time…transcending all that to which is more than the sum of its parts. Very Beautiful movie

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