Do you ever notice there is a gulf between your absolute favorite films and what the critics raved about? Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate things that are objectively well made and notable, but I often find that the movies that we cherish or that resonate with us may not have played that well to critics, or even the public at large.
I bring before you, the people, a case for one of my favorite films, Darren Aronofsky‘s The Fountain. You might recognize Aronofsky’s name from the his one-two punch of knockout films The Wrestler and Black Swan, both of which were stellar films which got all the praise they deserved. You may know his name from the problematic, but no less fascinating Requiem for a Dream, a.k.a. the movie that spawned the dramatic soundtrack for every trailer since 2001. You may have even heard buzz that he’s trying to bring the Biblical epic of Noah and his ark to the big screen in 2014. Check out the theatrical trailer below.
Despite these accomplishments, I wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t heard of The Fountain. It’s the red-headed stepchild of Aronofsky’s filmography; part modern day drama, part psychedelic Space Odyssey-esque metaphor, and part quasi-historical New World fable. It’s bold, baffling, and full of many complex elements that serve to highlight its very simple story. Have I sold you on it? OK, let me go a bit deeper.
I think the reason many people can’t sink their teeth into The Fountain is because they are trying to construct a plot out of what are essentially just concepts. The Fountain is about the relationship between two characters played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. The characters exist in three distinct points in time, or at least we are to understand that they are the same characters. The film gives no explanation, and it’s not really needed.
In the present day, Jackman plays a doctor named Tom who is tirelessly working to find a cure to his wife Izzi’s aggressive brain tumor. In the past, Jackman is Tomás, a Spanish conquistador vying for the endorsement and affection of Queen Isabella as he mounts an expedition into Mayan lands in search of the legendary Fountain of Youth. In the future, Jackman plays Tommy, a spacefaring man in a giant bubble that is hurtling toward a nebula with only a few personal effects and a tree that is implied to contain Izzi’s soul. Is this the same Tom and Izzi from 500 years ago? If you’re already confused, understand that these three time periods are introduced and revisited several times, so there are thematic links among the three, but no obvious chronological story.
The Fountain is a story about the inevitability of death, and a celebration of the rebirth that always accompanies death. While the narrative threads are stretched thin by the end, the themes of The Fountain are so strong that they are still fresh in my mind from when I first saw it on the big screen in 2006. Tomás receives the cryptic words “Death is the road to awe,” from a Mayan priest, and this mantra coalesces over everything else in the film. I’ll leave the specifics for those willing to take a chance on this film, but the crescendo is sublime as it all comes together and Tom learns that death is truly unavoidable, but also irrelevant, as it also leads to new life.
Perhaps all I’ve done is made this movie sound beyond baffling, but hopefully I’ve convinced you about how important it is to me. I have dealt with the death of three close family members since watching this film, and I’ve very closely taken to heart Aronofsky’s message of transcendence as a way to deal with death. To me, that makes this an utterly beautiful, harrowing film on a very personal level.
What is great about this type of film, those we hold closest, is that it is a completely personal interpretation. What film is special to you? Is it because of who you watched it with or what was going on in your life at the time? I’d love to hear others’ stories about what makes that odd choice of favorite film your favorite.