To all the standard criteria of what makes a movie great (directing, writing, acting, entertainment), The Fountain is great. But it also brings a level of inventiveness and purpose rarely seen in movies.
Everything on screen (or close to it) has an expertly designed meaning: from which way the camera is facing to subtle shapes hidden in the composition and beyond. People who love over anaylizing theatrical adventures, your movie messiah is here. But as complex as every element of this creation can seem, it's core is shockingly simple. Tomas (Hugh Jackman) loves Izzy (Rachel Weisz), his dying wife. He'll do whatever he can to save her. That's it. Very accesable to the same mainstream audience who will probably pass on the movie because of it's scary, non-formulaic content.
It takes place in 1500 Spain, modern day America and 2500 space. Each time period is a different take of the same basic relationship, using countless metaphors as connective tissue. The fact that it takes place over three time periods and contains three subplots hundreds of years apart is pretty intense as it is, but writer/director Darren Aronofsky takes it a few steps further by arming each of these paralleling stories with different interprtations of life, death and love. Thankfully for the audience, it's not done preacher-style, cramming ideals down one's throat.
Any potentially mind expanding concepts are used as nutritional supplements to the emotionally relatable, moving story. Probably not an easy task, definitely not a common one, but it's pulled off here. In the hands of most other directors, this movie would've been silly and overstuffed. But the talent behind Pi and Requiem for a Dream are in full effect. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique reinvents the purpose of camera work as a literal story telling device while Clint Mansell's overwhelmingly moving score unifies the whole movie into a fluid, well paced experience. As icing on the cake, the trippy space visuals are prettier and cooler than what most recent summer blockbusters have offered.
The movie isn't perfect. There are little wrinkles here and there that people can poke, such as how Izzy isn't as three dimensional as Tomas, or how some Mayan locations felt a little too much like a sound stage. Always something to nit pick in everything, but nothing of substancial criticism here. Nothing that diminishes the final power of the movie.
The "largest flaw" (for lack of better words) that might affect the film is that it bypasses instant gratification. The audiences have to earn their experience. It takes a little bit of time to find relevence in the various philosophies presented. It also has to simmer before we realize the movie is actually very simple, focused and human.
Off the bat we're thrown into a crazy world of South American spear battles, celestial travel and hospital drama, creating a bloated first impression that needs a little digestion before falling in love with the human situations that will soon unfold. For some, space bubble Tae-Chi and other odd visual situations may hit too early, causing cynical audiences to judge it as pretentious and overly art-school before it really has a chance to bloom. Fortunately, for those with patience, it all pays off in a gigantic climax that violates the human brain with the welcomed over stimulation of intense music, visuals and everything coming together in perfect, soul destroying explosion of movie goodness.
The Fountain is hyper imaginative in both the story itself as well as how the it is told. By that alone, it is an important cinematic accomplishment and should be seen on those merits. Furthermore, it's entertaining and original. The closest comparison to another movie would be loosely calling it "the philosophically superior, nonaction movie alternate dimension long lost brother of The Matrix trilogy." It's a simple movie that takes us into different realities using mind bending visuals and contains concepts that, if one feels like looking for, hold some intellectual value about what our lives really mean (sorry, no 6 hour long rave scenes in this one).
Most importantly, the film is shockingly emotional. Emotional in an honest way, minus the Hollywood cheese and cliches of standard romance and drama cinema. Strange that a "space Mayan medical drama" is one of the first movies in a long time to resonate genuine feelings. At the press screening, grown men were crying. It's one of the most powerful cinematic experiences, period. The movie does so much on so many levels and it does it all without being full of itself. The Fountain is not for everyone, but everybody should see it. Like it or not, it is an experience.