As we continue this series of posts on some big-budget ambitious films that could indicate success or disaster for Cloud Atlas, we arrive at one that is particularly similar in my mind. Actually, The Fountain is so similar in concept that if you read all of the recent New Yorker article, you’ll notice that they mentioned that the studios were nervous because they used The Fountain as a comparison film to work out the stats on whether the film would be a success or not. Thus actually causing a debate on how do you economically model originality?
The Fountain, if you haven’t seen it – and it has disappeared into obscurity relatively quickly – was Darren Aronofsky’s big break-out film after the success of Requiem for a Dream and before he broke the big time with The Wrestler and, of course, Black Swan. It has three multiple storylines centred around the theme of the Tree of Life – which is used as a metaphor for conquering death, more than anything else.
One strand tells of a Spanish soldier running an errand for Queen Isabella in darkest South America to find the fabled tree of life, the second strand is of a modern-day scientist racing to finalise a cure for cancer before his wife dies. And finally, a bald guy floats in space in a giant bubble, accompanying the tree somewhere before it dies. (I should say that I haven’t seen it since the cinemas and I’m doing my best to recap it from my memory.) All three of these guys are played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz shows up in two of the storylines as well. Here’s the trailer, in case you never saw it.
The reason I draw a comparison between this film and Cloud Atlas is twofold: number one, it had an amazing trailer. Beautiful special effects, three timelines, and all of this for a movie that wasn’t a big blockbuster action film. I was impressed. And obviously, it shares many similarites in the stucture – cutting back and forth between different timelines, actors sharing multiple roles, etc.
But while I still love the concept, something went wrong on the way to the cinema. The film looked beautiful, but it became less and less clear what was going on, and we were left with an ambiguous ending that didn’t quite work. Now don’t get me wrong, I love arthouse cinema and ambiguous endings, but nonetheless I (and 49% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes) weren’t quite satisfied with the way this worked. We were promised a masterpiece, but it never quite got there.
So will Cloud Atlas end up the same way? I’m a bit more optimistic on this one, because it’s based on an actual novel, which does have a narrative arc (or six narrative arcs, really). While there is certainly a touch of surreal to the proceedings, it should be part of the story, not just strangeness for its own sake.