One of the principle causes of a negative film experience is expectation.
This can take many forms and originate from several sources. The advertising campaign could be misleading. The film might be advertised as a comedy despite containing darker, more dramatic themes. Perhaps the presence of specific actors or filmmakers might set the bar higher than it should be. Maybe the film is an adaptation and loyal fans of the original work possess strong opinions about what should and should not be in the movie.
In the case of "The Fountain," though, the issue of expectation is one rarely encountered in modern cinema: what is the purpose of the cinematic medium? Why do we go to the movies and what experience should they give us? I suspect different people's and critics' answers to these questions is the explanation to the mixed response "The Fountain" has received.
The film is the third offering from Darren Aronofsky, the director of "Pi" and "Requiem for A Dream." With his first two films Aronofsky established himself as one of the most original, exciting filmmakers of his generation. "Requiem" still stands as my favorite film of all time. I have never seen a more powerful, intense, merciless film - nothing even comes close to the experience of "Requiem for a Dream," a razor sharp examination of four lives shattered by drug addiction. Now, after six years of film development hell - including an aborted, $70 million dollar version of "The Fountain" to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett - he has emerged with a film aptly described by my younger brother as "the opposite of ‘Requiem for a Dream.'" Where "Requiem" digs in and pumps your soul full of poison, "The Fountain" bathes you in light.
It's a difficult film to summarize, though it can best be described as a blending of three stories involving a man in three time periods (Hugh Jackman) working to save the woman he loves (Rachel Weisz.) The first story is set roughly in 1500. The Spanish Inquisition threatens the Queen of Spain. Tomas, a conquistador, has been sent on a quest to New Spain by Queen Isabella. He is to find a mythical Mayan temple that allegedly guards the Tree of Life. Once he has found it and drank of its sap, the two shall live together forever. Isabella says seductively that once he returns, "I shall be your Eve."
The second - and arguably most important story - involves Tommy, a cancer research scientist who is racing to develop a cure for his wife Izze who has only a few days of life left before her brain tumor kills her. She is a novelist writing a book titled The Fountain which tells the story of Tomas' quest. Near the beginning Tommy has a breakthrough with an experimental compound based on a Guatemalan tree. It has the potential to reverse the aging process.
The third storyline is the most abstract. Set in 2500, it features Tommy - sitting in the lotus position, sporting a shaved head and tattooed rings all over his arms - floating through space in a giant ball with a tree inside that he eats of occasionally. His destination: Xibalba, a nebula surrounding a dying star that the Mayans chose as their underworld.
Again, what is the purpose of the cinematic medium? What is the primary thing that a movie does? Answer: it tells a story. We are so accustomed to the focus of a movie being its plot and characters. We go to see the protagonist overcome the antagonist. We are accustomed to that familiar narrative three act structure with rising tension, climax, and denouement. We want things to make logical sense. We don't want plot holes and unanswered questions. We want to be taken smoothly from point A to B and given some closure. We want to understand.
"The Fountain" is a different animal. Plot and characters do not drive the film. The reason: who the characters are and how they are connected to one another are not fully explained. It is not a logical, this-connects-to-this, this-happened-then story. The best way to describe the film is to consider it as a poem. It's about images and complex spiritual ideas; it does not offer easy defined answers - like all great art, it is beautiful and transcendent. It is a gorgeous meditation on life, love and death. "The Fountain" is truly one of the deepest, most sincere, most genuine spiritual films we've seen in recent times. Contrast this cinematic poem to what most movies are: cinematic paperback novels.
It was not always going to be this way, though. To see what the original, $70 million Brad Pitt version was going to be like, check out the graphic novel The Fountain as illustrated by Kent Williams. When the original film fell apart after Pitt backed out, Aronofsky secured the graphic novel rights and handed the script over to Williams. Reading the book we see what would have been a much larger, longer, more expensive, more epic picture loaded with much more plot. While that could have been a great film, the $35 million, stripped-down version is very effective. By clearing away as much unnecessary plot as possible, the glorious combination of astonishing visuals and mystical ideas can shine more brightly.
On the subject of the visuals, Aronofsky again shows his visual creativity. In "Requiem for a Dream" and "Pi" he utilized such techniques as the hip-hop montage - a repeated series of quickly-cut images augmented with sound effects - and the Snorricam - a camera attached directly to the body of the actor. In "The Fountain" Aronofsky vowed to use as few computer-animated images as possible. To create the golden nebula effects, his team took photographs of bacteria cultures under the microscope. This is just one of the ways that the stories are visually tied together - it links the space images of the 2500 story with the scientific, cancer lab images of the modern day story. There are plenty of other visual links binding the stories together.
Also continuing the trend of his previous work, "The Fountain" maintains a high level of technical and artistic mastery. Aronofsky's previous collaborators rejoin him. Matthew Libatique, the phenomenal cinematographer who shot his previous films as well as the recent Spike Lee films "Inside Man" and "She Hate Me" returns. Jay Rabinowitz, the gifted editor of "Requiem for a Dream" is back. ("Requiem" is one of the great masterpieces of film editing.") Also again providing music is Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet. How good is the soundtrack? After seeing the movie I went straight out and bought it.
It will probably either be a love-it or hate-it scenario for most people. Those wanting more conventional films will likely be disappointed. For those interested in these spiritual matters and beautiful images this is the movie of the year.