The Fountain (2006): A Film of Visual and Musical Splendor Despite its Pretensions

After Darren Aronofsky wowed audiences with his depiction of the death spiral of addiction in Requiem for a Dream and before Natalie Portman’s dancing psychoses in Black Swan, Aronofsky wrote and directed The Fountain, a fascinating blend of science fiction, fable, and fictionalized history.

The Fountain interweaves three stories, which may or may not involve reincarnations of the same characters. In one, Hugh Jackman plays a conquistador sent by Queen Isabella (Rachel Weisz) to find the Fountain of Youth. In another, Jackman plays a scientist racing to discover a cure to his wife’s cancer. In the last, Jackman plays a man in the distant future who is traveling through space in a biosphere with the Tree of Life.

Needless to say, this movie is not without grand ambition. It’s pretty darned pretentious, when you get right down to it – but so are the films of Stanley Kubrick, and look how his films are regarded today – and this film certainly recalls and evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey for its depth and exploration of a theme through different narratives.

The Fountain opened to mix reviews when it opened in 2006, only recouping $15 million of its $35 million budget, but has since gained cult status among cinephiles. Why?

It’s interesting to note that originally the film was estimated to cost $70 million, and was to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, and include large set-pieces of Mayan pyramids and grand battles between Spanish knights and Mayan warriors.

Though I think it’s pointless to think of what might have been, I think Jackman and Weisz excel in their multiple roles and the scaling down of spectacle has its strengths and drawbacks.

The smaller budget also forced the filmmakers to find cheaper, more old-fashioned ways to achieve spectacular visual effects, (particularly in the space sequences), visuals that I think are superior and will have more longevity than standard CGI. Utilizing macro photography of bacteria and chemical reactions, the effects produce an otherworldly visual of nebulae and supernovae that could not otherwise have been achieved, especially in such a memorable way. The smaller story also makes the battle scenes more metaphorical (which feature Jackman’s conquistador fighting against a whole army of Mayans) and in line with the themes of the story.

Which are deep and thought-provoking, despite the simplicity of the conflict.

Aronofsky shows considerable deft storytelling as he blends Mayan, Christian, Eastern, and Western philosophies into a comprehensive whole: Western society always seeks to transcend and trump nature, but in the end, only the Eastern philosophy of acceptance is the right one.

Consider the ideas of IMDB user MConley7: If Jackman’s character represents Western man, then he is “always conquering,” always attempting to beat and tame nature. Weisz’s cancer-stricken character, on the other hand seems to accept death, and therefore the natural world, perhaps emulating an Eastern philosophy of thought.

This is a difficult concept to base a film on, let alone three loosely connected stories – its invokes pretension, which may induce scorn by the critics, but I never found myself groaning, because if there’s one thing The Fountain does right, is its visual splendor.

Recurring images and motifs dominate the film. The colors of gold, green, black, and white dominate the visual spectrum, a completely unique spectrum to this film. The motif of the sphere, the nebula, the Tree of Life – they are all embedded in the unlikeliest of places. I found myself searching for the visual clues and connections, attempting to solve the puzzle – which it is, but fortunately, Aronofsky neither tells us the answer but does not leave it too ambiguous, either.

Clint Mansell’s score is stunning and beautiful, adding a whole layer of depth and originality to the film. Unlike Kubrick’s 2001 and The Shining, which relied on classical music, Mansell’s score develops the plot with a soundtrack that is fresh and entirely new.

Is The Fountain a classic? It certainly wants to be, but it’s too early to say. However, it is a film well-worth watching, especially for its visual expertise and deftly realized themes. Its images are as memorable as the film’s evocative catchphrase, “Death is the Road to Awe,” and there’s not much else we can ask for in a film.

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