Sometimes the only fun thing about seeing serious, Oscar-bait movies is getting to read the reviews and participate (vicariously) in the semi-intellectual discussion of them. I was reading just such an article about the recent Black Swan when I came across a thrown-off line about how Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a such a success in comparison to his critical flop, The Fountain.
The tone of this statement (which I think was in an issue of The New Yorker I read at the gym, and which, after searching for today, I could not locate, so please forgive me for my poor attribution skillz) was, “Of course we can all agree that The Fountain was terrible and forget about it.”
“Hey now!” says I, “I loved The Fountain!” (Not out loud. People already look at me funny when I hum on the treadmill.)
At any rate, other articles say similar things, and I feel like I need to throw a little retroactive love to The Fountain.
To begin with, it’s almost impossible to find a good science fiction movie. As a huge fan of the genre, I think I can count on one hand the science fiction films I’ve loved. It’s to the point where I’ll spot a new release at the video store and proactively cringe. In all likelihood, the offering will be sexist (sexually voracious genetically modified female wreaks havoc), simplistic (it’s a shoot-em-up, except it’s IN SPACE!), thinly-disguised horror (the devil stows away on a spaceship (why? wouldn’t he have more potential victims planetside?)), or feature Tara Reid (…all of the above?).
The Fountain came along into this decidedly bleak landscape, a science fiction story in the vein of Ursula LeGuin’s The Telling or Sheri Tepper’s Raising the Stones. That is, thoughtful, sociologically astute science fiction, rather than space opera science fiction. (Note that I am not knocking space operas or science-actions; I will also sing the praises of a Serenity or a Fifth Element, which are both thoughtful movies. But The Fountain is not trying to be that kind of movie.)
Visually startling—almost Jungian—heart-felt, with the likable Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, and an interesting braided story, The Fountain resists both easy comparisons and the need of the modern viewer for instant gratification. You need to be in a contemplative or at least a patient mood to watch it. (The same can be said for the critically lauded Primer.) It does what the best science fiction movies should do – it creates a world on film that couldn’t have been created with words alone. Some people may have disliked it because it’s a downer. I found that once I accepted that the journey of The Fountain is about saving the human soul, not the human body, it was redemptive rather than depressing. I am also partial to this film because it addresses a theme I return to often: death as a profound mystery, and a profound gift.
Finally, it’s a movie that did a lot with a little; watch the DVD extras to see how some seriously otherworldly scenes were created with the lowest of tech.
I think part of the reason The Fountain gets beat up so much is that it is entirely sincere. It’s open-hearted. Asking a question that is difficult to confront – is death the end? – and earnestly considering the possible answers, it is not particularly slick. It is not well-defended. Black Swan is successful in the sense that it gets to where it was headed. It achieves what it sets out to do – claustrophobically and unenjoyably, but effectively. As a narrative, Black Swan is a closed circle that repels criticism. But I will stand up for The Fountain. It also gets where it was headed to. That’s the standard by which I judge a poem: the idea that a poem succeeds because it arrives where it was headed, or at least ends up stopping while facing the right direction. The Fountain is a visual poem for me; transformative, full of wonder, hopeful.