I guess I should start off by saying that practically every plot summary and/or review that I’ve read of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain has either been nothing close to what I thought it was actually about, or been pretty negative. Without claiming to have the “right” interpretation of the film, I am more than happy to run the risky road of unpopular opinion in saying that this might be one of the most profound, humbling, creative, moving, and visually beautiful films that I have seen in a long time.
I’ll admit that I’ve been a diehard fan of Aronofsky along with everyone else, particularly of his incredibly heart-wrenching tale of intersecting human tragedy, Requiem for a Dream. Unafraid to test the limits of the independent art film, it seems that, based on the terrible ratings and comments that have been made about The Fountain, people just didn’t like being pushed quite that much. The independent film, a category that has previously been a place for many of the non-mainstream films to go, has more recently adopted its own formula for movie-making–a formula that I think a lot of self-proclaimed independent film lovers have inadvertently become addicted to. You know what I’m talking about—trickling guitar music, average stories about losing and gaining love, family bonding, finding one’s identity… But films that truly challenge and expand what you think a movie can do (in any and all respects) are almost always the ones that have the greatest impact on their audiences. The Fountain couldn’t be a more perfect example of where an independent film should strive to take you– completely out of your movie-watching comfort zone.
I think there are many reasons why people might not have latched on to this film. First of all, and to be expected with a film by Aronofsky, the film doesn’t follow a succinct and crisply laid out plot. In an interview with moviefreak.com, Aronofsky says, “It is [hard] to tell a story about the quest for immortality in the present alone. That’s why our story takes place in the 16th, 21st, and 26th centuries. That doesn’t mean The Fountain is a time travel movie in any sort of a traditional way. It’s more like three interlocking time periods, just as you mentioned, where the characters embody three different parts of the same person.” Almost every plot synopsis of this film is the same. “Three parallel stories, past present, future, spanning thousands of years, Spanish conquistador, medical researcher, space traveler…” Space traveler? I never ever would have thought of the bubble story as having anything to do with a futuristic astronaut. I’m glad that I hadn’t read any reviews, interviews or summaries before I actually saw the film, because I think they would’ve confused me more, and I might not have gotten as much out of the film as I think I did. The only thing I knew going in was that Hugh Jackman’s character had a terminally ill wife (Rachel Weisz). Here is what I thought “happened”:
Thinking outside the box when it comes to the plot of this film is necessary–this means accepting that perhaps some of the stories might not be “real” in the sense that they actually took place in time and space in the same way that I think the “present-day” Tommy/Izzi story did. It also means considering that the plot may not necessarily surround a series of events, but rather, a series of symbols stretched across three layers of stories.
The Tommy/Izzi story is where I find the truest, most comprehensible reality of the film to be. In this thread, Tommy is a medical researcher who tests naturally-based medicines on primates and has been desperately trying to discover a cure for his wife, Izzi’s cancer. Deeply devoted to his wife in a way he can’t quite understand, Tommy is unwilling to accept that there may not be a clear-cut scientific solution for everything, most notably for death. “Death is a disease, it’s like any other. And there’s a cure. A cure–and I will find it,” he says. Izzi is an artist, writer, and explorer of the human spirit. She gazes at stars, has had a Mayan Spirit guide, and is enchanted by old Mayan tales and their answers to the mysteries of the Universe. “Death is the road to awe,” is what she whispers into Tommy’s ear on her deathbed. I view this “present” story as more of the dramatic/classic cornerstone of the film. We aren’t asked to stretch our imaginations too far in this part of the film—we visually see true human contact and dialogue, tragedy, steamy love-making in an oversized bathtub…(yep!) And as a final parting gift to Tommy, she leaves him the task of writing the last chapter of her most recent book, “The Fountain.” This is where the second story comes in.
The tale of the Spanish conquistador “Tomas” (Hugh Jackman) and his quest to discover the Tree of Life in the heart of Mayan country and bring honor to his Queen (Rachel Weisz) whilst delivering his country from the shameful conduct of the Spanish Inquisition is the basis for Izzi’s story. The title of her novel “The Fountain,” then, must have something to do with mankind’s unending search and obsession with “the fountain of youth” or the search for immortality. The “present day” and Spanish adventurer stories are closely and pretty comprehensibly intertwined. There are many visually recognizable parallels across the stories including an abundance of circular patterns in architecture, physical performances (such as pacing), dialogue, details as significantly small as a recurring wedding ring, the use of extreme lighting, mostly in yellow/gold, bright white, and black textures, and in the “present”, Izzi’s deep fascination with Mayan culture and how she integrates that interest into her own work. I see this story as the director’s attempt at a mesh of historical/mystical/fable storytelling with heavy overtones of deep-seated underlying human curiosities running throughout. And just when you didn’t think it was possible to get any further from the independent film formula, here comes the bubble story!
The third, and possibly the most mind-bending thread in the film, involves a bald Hugh Jackman (“Tom Creo” in this part) floating in space towards a dying star wrapped in a nebula. In an almost prison-like state of meditation, he spends much of his time eating bark from a great dying tree inside a transparent sphere and giving himself tattoos to bide his time and pay tribute to his memories as the bubble moves toward the cosmic, and presumably, life-restoring nebula. The only thing that is abundantly clear in this thread is that Tom Creo’s goal is to reach the nebula before the tree dies completely. This is probably where Aronofsky lost his audience for good. True, this story is far less comprehensible in terms of its content or how it fits in with the other two stories, but I found Aronosky’s attempt at an entirely different third kind of story to be quite beautiful and refreshingly compelling.
The smaller details in this bubble story really got to me. For example, the tiny hairs on the back of Izzi’s neck as Tommy gently kisses them in the “present” closely resemble small hairs on the magnificent dying tree in Tom Creo’s bubble, which he whispers words of encouragement to as the draw nearer to the nebula. The theme of enlightenment is strongest in this particular story as well, as is made clear by Hugh Jackman’s shaved head, contained existence, and truly remarkable lotus yoga pose! I’m certain that an even bigger chunk of Aronofsky’s audience was lost when the Floating Lotus Hugh Jackman reaches enlightenment and makes a surprise appearance in the Spanish conquistador tale. I have to admit, it did look a little strange…I might’ve even chuckled a bit, but I found myself tearing up soon after this moment. The bubble story seems to me to be the furthest from traditional film storytelling that the director was willing to go. In a way, he might’ve been pushing the envelope by expecting his audiences to fully embrace a story that essentially revolves around a soul’s varying levels of consciousness. I had my concerns, but by the end of the film, I believed so much in the value of the other stories in combination with this one, that I couldn’t have possibly imagined a better way to do it.
The strongest and most recurring symbol in the film is, of course, the Tree of Life. In the “present” the story integrates the tree more realistically, citing it as the resource for a miracle breakthrough in animal testing for the reduction of cancerous growths and tumors. A mysterious “tree in South America” is very briefly mentioned as the medicinal power behind the supposed cure. In the “The Fountain,” (Izzi’s story), Tomas must travel into the jungle heartland of uncivilized Mayan country in search of the Tree of Life—a quest that “present” Tommy is actually left to finish by writing the final chapter of the novel. And in the bubble story, Tom Creo’s entire existence revolves around delivering the tree inside his sphere to the nebula.
Immortality, the search for never-ending life, an answer to the most essential of mankind’s questions and frustrations about the Universe—these things are at the heart of the film. Occasionally, a more ordinary movie might bring up these questions—what is my place in the Universe? What happens to me and my loved ones when I die?—it might even try to explore the emotions and reactions that arise from the inherent curiosity of humanity. But the thing that makes this film really stand out and capture my heart is that it actually offers an extraordinarily satisfying answer to these questions. There is simply not an adequate combination of words to describe what Aronofsky brings to the screen by the end of the film (so see it!), but the two best words I can come up with are relief and joy. In each story, Hugh Jackman’s character reaches some kind of enlightenment in which he becomes part of the Universe again. His soul doesn’t evaporate or get destroyed by death—it becomes part of something greater. Most importantly, his greatest fears surrounding death have evaporated, and the comfort of the truth that Izzi is still with him allows him to feel joy again.
But he doesn’t stop there! Tommy’s ending to Izzi’s story may have resulted in Tomas reaching a kind of forced enlightenment when he gorges himself on the juices of the Tree of Life, but Aronofsky strikes another resonating chord by leaving the “present” story in a state of limbo. When Tommy visits Izzi’s grave, it is clear that he can’t fully accept that she is gone, and will continue to research and might never let go of his love for her until his own death. This is one of the greatest truths that the film explores—we have an obsessive, unalterable desire to live forever and to be with those we love forever. What this movie suggests is that indeed, “together we will be forever,” if not in the physical form that we know and cherish, then as part of something far greater than what a human body can contain.
Obviously this is the kind of film that demands to be seen multiple times. While I can see how it might’ve been slow for some people or maybe just too “out there,” for others, there’s no doubt in my mind that the film is brilliant, as is the director.
And if you’re wondering… yes, I cried.