Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain was a colossal failure. Its box office receipts were well below its small budget, and the critics found it mediocre.
It was also one of the best science fiction films in the last decade. And here's why.
A Painting Unlike most films today, The Fountain used very little in the way of computer-generated graphics. And yet the visuals are some of the most interesting and beautiful ever seen in a film. On first viewing, the scenes in deep space stand out as spectacular shows of color and light. These were accomplished by photographing deep sea organisms in three dimensions, and the effect is more splendid than any CG could ever provide.
But the rest of the film is just as gorgeous, in less spectacular ways. The film's sets were splendidly lit, designed (or chosen), and shot in unique and powerful ways. Even main character Tommy Creo's (Hugh Jackman) house is transformed into a work of art by Aronofsky's care and attention.
The film takes place in three periods (past, present, and future). Each period has its own visual look, but is connected with the other two thematically. At one point in the film, Hugh Jackman drives towards a city on a freeway at night. Soon after, in the past, he rides down a dirt road toward a city on a horse. Both visuals are somehow otherwordly and haunting, and clearly designed to reinforce the similarities between the characters Jackman plays in all three periods.
A Poem Aronfosky's story is deep, complex, and perhaps a little convoluted. Taken as a movie in the sense that we have come to view movies (a vehicle for a story) perhaps the critics are right; It isn't that amazing.
But this is not a film to be appreciated on the same level as most films. The Fountain is filled with metaphor and intertwined meaning, much of it only loosely connected on a literal level. It is an aesthetic work, but a deeply powerful one with a plethora of meaningful themes and ideas.
The Fountain is a movie that begs repeated viewing. There is much and more to be found here, a veritable treasure trove of meaning. While its plot will never hold up to scrutiny, that's not really the point.
A Stage Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weiss provide the emotional core of The Fountain. Their acting is by turns intense and powerfully understated, and they utter lines so arch in tone that lesser actors would fail utterly, rendering key moments wooden and unconvincing. They take this arch dialogue and turn it into a prayer of grief, longing, rage, and finally acceptance.
Jackman's performance alone would make this a movie worth watching. He plays three distinct characters here, and manages to connect them without submerging them all into a single role. He is truly convincing throughout the film, and drives it forward unrelentingly, even in its quieter, more serene moments.
A Song Clint Mansell's score is so powerful that it seems to comprise almost half the film. He turns from beauty to dark oppression in sure, careful strokes, exploring his melodies in different and uniquely suitable ways throughout the film. His soundtrack is worth hearing by itself-I've listened to it repeatedly myself. Combined with the images Aronofsky puts forth onto the screen, it is an aesthetic masterpiece, like the rest of the film.
The movie's climactic section, scored by Mansell's Death is the Road to Awe, is something everyone should experience. The end of the song will leave you breathless, a soaring culmination of everything Mansell carefully prepared through the rest of the film.
A Film With The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky has proven that he can create something truly powerful and truly outside the bounds of storytelling and traditional filmmaking. Viewed as a painting, a poem, and a stage, combined thematically and aesthetically, this is a fitting masterpiece for a respected filmmaker.