It’s a sad truth that successful creatively doesn’t always mean successful financially. In fact, in our reboot/remake-obsessed culture right now, it seems that originality is punished, rather than celebrated, and not even our beloved genre of science fiction can dodge that bullet. Just this past year, we’ve seen numerous unique, intriguing SF films — including John Carter, Dredd 3D, and Cloud Atlas — receive chilly receptions. (Although John Carter, in spite of all the negative buzz, has more than made back its budget worldwide.) Sadly, this isn’t a new phenomenon. One of my favorite SF movies of all time is Darren Aronofsky’s epic, ambitious The Fountain, which earned a mere $10.3 million worldwide (via IMDb Pro), against an estimated budget of $35 million. In a new interview, writer/director Aronofsky looked back on the film’s failure, and suggests it was the victim of a single bad review that became a landslide of negative press.
Speaking to The Playlist, Aronofsky points to Variety’s harsh review, penned by Leslie Felperin, as having sent the film into a “tailspin” that it never recovered from. Here’s the review’s opening paragraph, which does a concise job of summing up the review’s tone:
Backburnered four years ago after original star Brad Pitt pulled out, then long in the making, “The Fountain,” third feature by one-time wunderkind Darren Aronofsky (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream”), made more of a splatter than a splash on Venice’s Lido with its world premiere. Greeted by booing at its first press unspooling, pic’s hippy trippy space odyssey-meets-contempo-weepie-meets-conquistador caper starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz suffers from a turgid script and bears all the signs of edit-suite triage to produce a still-incoherent 95 minutes. A gush of negative word of mouth will keep B.O. figures at a trickle.
If you recall, The Fountain went through numerous fits and starts on the way to the box office, including the loss of one-time lead actor Brad Pitt — in the role later played by Hugh Jackman — and a serious slashing of budget. Variety’s review also criticizes The Fountain as showing “all the wear and tear of a personal project that has suffered from production fits and starts and reportedly has been cut down from a longer running time to a still tedious and repetitious hour and a half.”
While every movie writer inevitably has to learn to withstand negative reviews, Variety’s seems to have really stung Aronofsky. Here’s what he said to The Playlist:
Not only did she attack the film, she attacked me. People in social media attack you for everything you’ve done, that happens all the time. But a critic should be focused on what’s at hand, not attack someone’s career and say their past films are overrated and say they have no ability. She clearly had an issue with me as a person and what I was putting out there as my stories. So that bothered me. And so probably if I ever met her, it wouldn’t be a good day.
Definitely harsh. But was the review harsh enough to single-handedly derail the movie’s chances of finding an audience? That seems like a stretch. Must as I love The Fountain, there is no question that it was always going to be a tough sell. With a twisting narrative that features actors playing multiple different roles across storylines that stretch from the 16th century to the distant future, The Fountain>/i> is not a movie that suffers casual viewing. Rather like Cloud Atlas, another box office bomb that demanded your full attention and suffered for it.
The Fountain is very much a meditation of life, death, and love, and Aronofsky has said that the film was inspired by both of his parents being diagnosed with cancer when he was only 30 years old. Having been through a somewhat similar experience, the movie spoke to me and my wife in ways it may not have for other viewers. Did we connect to it in a way that most audience members simply couldn’t? I have no idea. But I have found myself returning to the movie on DVD over the years, and I have no doubt I will for years to come. Hell, I’m already planning a Fountain/Cloud Atlas double feature.
Let’s face it: The Fountain was, by its very nature, doomed to box office failure. While it has earned something of a cult following in the years since, it simply was not the sort of movie that attracts eyeballs and purchases in our moviegoing culture. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is, and trying to stick the blame for its failure onto a single review just seems desperate. You’re a good filmmaker, Darren. Put Ms. Felperin’s words in your rearview and go make another to blow my mind.