Thursday, May 8, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Movie Review #2: The Fountain

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.  One of the things the creator of the site wanted to do was not just spotlight independent comics, but to also spotlight indy/art (put quotes around those words) movies.  And, as the site was evolving - before it got sucked into the internet void - I tried to keep up with a couple of movie reviews.  Here's the one for The Fountain, which, at this point, is my favorite all-time film.  Enjoy.


THE FOUNTAIN is Darren Aronofsky’s most ambitious film to date, and for a number of different reasons it was also his most challenging.  Following the critical success of his first two features – PI in 1998, winner of the director’s award at the Sundance Film Festival, and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM in 2000, which garnered an Oscar nomination for Ellen Burstyn for Best Actress in a Leading Role – Aronofsky had a story idea that he said “came to him in a flash.”  This idea became THE FOUNTAIN, a story spanning across a thousand years from the past through the present to the future.  After the success of THE MATRIX in which the Wachowski Brothers had taken the science fiction genre to a new level, Aronofsky saw a chance with THE FOUNTAIN  to expand upon the visual spectacle the Wachowski’s had achieved.  Initially slated to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, funding fell through when Pitt backed out due to creative conflicts with the director.  At this point Warner Bros. had already invested $20 million into the film, and with the stars gone it did not seem as if THE FOUNTAIN would get made.  But Aronofsky, now unshackled by the huge budget and multitude of fingers in the pie, went back to the well and broke the story down in order to develop it for a leaner independent budget.

With the re-written script in hand, Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz stepped into the shoes left by Pitt and Blanchett and production was renewed.  Scheduled to be released in the fall of 2005 – set to coincide with the publication of the graphic novel painted by Kent Williams, which adapted the original screenplay rather than the reworked film – the release date was pushed back a few times until finally being released this past Thanksgiving.  Eight years after its initial conception, the long hard road of THE FOUNTAIN was finally over and Aronofsky could breathe a sigh of relief.

I must admit to some trepidation when I finally walked into the empty theatre and sat down for THE FOUNTAIN.  I first read about Aronofsky’s new movie four years ago when I found the official fan website – – which at the time still had Pitt and Blanchett attached to the film.  PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM are two of the small number of DVDs I own, and the promise of a new film from this cutting-edge director was exciting news.  But what if the anticipation overreached the actual film?  I worried I might have built it up too much in my head.  Could it live up to the hype?

Yes it could.

THE FOUNTAIN is a love story stretching over a thousand years.  Taking place in three distinct time periods – 1560s Spain, the present day, and the far future – the movie jumps back and forth between the multiple eras, allowing the film to unfold in a non-linear fashion similar to the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of 21 GRAMS and BABEL.  By telling his story in this manner, Aronofsky forces his audience to pay close attention, asking them to make the connections between the three narratives and discover the spine holding it all together.  Jackman and Weisz are star-crossed lovers – a Spanish conquistador and Queen Isabel, a surgeon doing cancer research working to find a cure for his stricken wife, and a space traveler haunted by the ghost of his lover as he moves toward discovering the secrets of a dying star.  The tortuous journey these characters face – searching for the Tree of Life, the Fountain of Youth, an end to death – is tense and moving.  But within each strand there is something held back, some piece of the puzzle missing, and it is not until the three storylines come crashing together at the climax of the film that the bond threading through each of these six characters’ lives becomes evident. 

Diffused in a golden light, another thematic connection for the disparate narrative threads, THE FOUNTAIN is also an incredibly beautiful movie to watch.  The way Aronofsky jumps back and forth – past to present, future to past, present to future – in an almost haphazard manner is a wonder to experience.  Despite the vast differences between time periods, Aronofsky manages to make the transitions seamless, focusing his scenes sharply in order to keep those in the audience on the edges of their seats.  Aronofsky is dexterous, demonstrating a complete understanding of what makes film unique as an expressive medium and utilizing those distinctive strengths to tell an engrossing and poignant story.

THE FOUNTAIN is easily the best film I have seen in a number of years.  Many films play upon an audience’s emotional heartstrings, utilizing familiar musical themes to evoke feelings that directors worry may not come across in the film itself.  This is artificial, and it can be annoying.  With THE FOUNTAIN, Aronofsky managed to touch me emotionally in a way I can never remember experiencing before at a film.  This can not only be attributed to the brilliant story conceived by Aronofsky and Ari Handel, but also to Aronofsky’s artful direction.  He manages to get brilliant performances out of Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman that are terribly affecting and I wonder at how this film did so poorly at the box office.

It has been posited on the internet, and I tend to agree, that the poor showing financially and the spate of poor reviews the movie received has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but more to do with the complexity and far-reaching goals Aronofsky has for THE FOUNTAIN.  I am not one easily given over to praise, but I feel that this is truly a masterpiece of modern cinema and I hope that it will find its audience through its DVD release, which is currently scheduled for May 15.  In short, I must give my highest recommendation for THE FOUNTAIN, a brilliant film that asks a lot of its audience but returns the effort in spades if one gives it a chance.

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