In this series, we reevaluate films generally dismissed as minor or inferior in the ouvres of notable directors. In this entry, Sinclair Target comes to the defense of Darren Aronofsky’s cosmic triptych.
The Fountain (2006) is not Darren Aronofsky’s most acclaimed film. Roger Ebert called it an unsuccessful movie, Dana Stevens of Slate Magazine called it “a really stupid movie,” and Richard Roeper—Ebert’s former co-host on Ebert & Roeper—called it “one of the worst movies of the year.” These critics and many others saw The Fountain as an overindulgent hiccup between Aronofsky’s much more successful Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Wrestler (2008). I don’t agree—in fact, I would say that The Fountain is one of Aronofsky’s most courageous, imaginative, and visually stunning masterworks. But I can see why people might not share my opinion.
Sort of like Cloud Atlas (2012), The Fountain tells parallel stories about the same characters set hundreds of years apart. How these three stories fit together isn’t quite clear. The central storyline seems to be about a biomedical scientist (Hugh Jackman) trying to invent a cure for cancer in time to save his dying wife (Rachel Weisz), but there is also a storyline about a 16th century conquistador questing for the mythical tree of life (which The Fountain explains as the plot of a novel the dying wife is writing) and a storyline about a monastic spaceman travelling to a distant nebula in a bubble (which The Fountain doesn’t explain at all). It’s confusing, and if the film rubs you the wrong way, it’s easy to see this tangled narrative as nothing more than a hollow attempt at profundity.
Yet, for all its symbols and allusions, The Fountain is simple and sincere at heart. The Rotten Tomatoes critics’ consensus on The Fountain—for what its worth—says that it is a film about “metaphysics, universal patterns, Biblical symbolism, and boundless love.” And many critics have felt that by trying to tackle so much Aronofsky ended up making a muddled and pretentious film. But actually, The Fountain is only about one thing: understanding death as a new beginning. It may stretch across thousands of years and it may seem, at times, to get lost in its own complexity, but every part of the film serves to further this theme. By choosing to tell three parallel stories, for example, Aronofsky isn’t trying to be unconventional. Nor is he trying to reach for more universal motifs. He’s showing us multiple reincarnations of a character struggling against his own supposed mortality, and is thus trying to make a point about the immortality of the soul. The same goes for the focus on shapes in each of the storylines: the progression from triangles to squares and finally to circles reemphasizes the film’s point about, well, the circle of life. It’s not just fluff for fluff’s sake.
Of course, The Fountain also boasts a magnificent Clint Mansell soundtrack, great acting from a great cast, and stunning cinematography—good reasons to see the film by themselves. But I think what recommends it most is that it is precisely what many critics have denied that it is: an elegant, powerful, and honest story.