Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain is a sprawling narrative that spans the past, present, and future (perhaps metaphorical). In just a short hour an a half Aronofsky fully engages and seemingly works through the pain and mystery of death while simultaneously rejecting any attempt to fully grasp such a concept. This is a truly beautiful and moving film that seamlessly weaves back and forth between three vast narratives that are infinitely intertwined. While the three stories might at first seem unrelated they are in essence different incarnations of the same basic human struggle, coming to grips with the inevitable reality of death.
In an attempt to give you a brief snapshot of the immense story (or stories) within this film, I will try and boil each of the three narratives to its essence. In the main narrative, that of present day experimental medical researcher Tommy (Hugh Jackman) is racing to find a cure for a cancer that is rapidly consuming his beloved wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz). We follow Tommy as he makes headway and suffers setbacks in his research, but more importantly we see the struggle of both Tommy and Izzi as they work through the changing dynamics of their life as they come to terms with, or refuse to come to terms with, the inevitable. While Tommy buries himself in his work frantically looking for a solution, an answer, a cure, Izzi grows more serenely accepting of life and death. In the film Izzi has written a book entitled The Fountain, and this book provides the past narrative which follows Tomas (also played by Jackman) as he quests to find the "Tree of Life" that will provide him and his Queen Isabel (also played by Weisz) with eternal life. Driven by his love for his Queen, Tomas braves the treacherous South American rainforest where he encounters Mayan forces that bar his path to the infamous Tree. Then in the future (or more metaphorical narrative) we follow Tom Cero (also Jackman) as he floats through space in a clear sphere with a tree and his thoughts, dreams, and memories to keep him company on his journey to Xibalba the place where he believes he will be reborn and his tree will be saved. This narrative is often used to connect all of the narratives as Tom Cero seems to be almost haunted by visions of Izzi and Isabel. As he flies through space he rehashes certain pivotal moments that then shift back to the present or the past. All of the three narratives trace the arcs of Tom-Tommy-Tomas as he fights against, struggles with, and comes to terms with death.
That is certainly a brief introduction to all three of the much more rich narratives that develop through this film, and I cannot stress enough just how beautifully each narrative is illustrated and the extraordinary way in which each of the stories are woven into each other. Through beautiful camerawork (shot by Aronofsky’s go-to cinematographer, Matthew Libatique) and an intense, almost Kubrick-ian, control of scene and setting The Fountain's story comes to life. There are many subtle, self-referential scenes and sequences that connect the story arcs not merely through narrative similarities but also through nuanced visual cues. Additionally the entire film has a very distinctive visual style that carries through the different stories, and all three are linked through the visuals of Xibalba, the dazzling, dying star. These visuals are yet another aspect of the film that sets it on a higher level. Rather than resting on the abilities of CGI graphics to create this realm, Aronofsky decided to film chemical reactions at a microscopic level and use these slowed down reactions as the visual representation of the mysterious Xibalba. The fact that he utilized this microscopic beauty to visualize something so macroscopic in scale and mystery adds an extra level to the aesthetic of the film, and keeps every aspect of the film grounded in the physical, terrestrial world.
However, none of this would matter if we as an audience don't care about our protagonists, and therein lies another incredibly strong aspect of this film, the acting. Both Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz prove incredibly versatile as they are forced to play a number of different characters. While Weisz is embodies her characters in a way that you can't help but fall in love with, Jackman's portrayal of Tomas-Tommy-Tom is really the star in this film. Through the different characters (or incarnations of the same character) Jackman is forced to confront, convey and successfully command such a range of emotion. A lesser actor might have overdone the subtlety necessary to embody the human condition, but Hugh Jackman came through hugely and the strength and weight of his performance cannot be overstated. On top of the beautiful and masterfully crafted visuals, intriguing interconnected narratives, and amazing performances from the actors, the film is also has a phenomenal soundtrack composed by Clint Mansell and played by The Kronos Quartet and Mogwai. The soundtrack is another uniting force through the narratives and is in essence one beautiful slow build throughout the film to an epic closing crescendo.
So just to sum all of this up – and I seriously haven't even begun to scratch the surface – this is a seriously one-of-a-kind film that investigates the human condition and the way that we struggle with and come to terms with the reality of what it means to be mortal. It is a beautifully shot and realized masterwork that conveys a strong and monumentally immense narrative in a very concise and emotional way. Why would I love to turn you on to this film? Because even after seeing it as many times as I have, I am affected by it as much now as I was the first time I watched it. You simply have to see for yourself, and after you do I highly recommend looking into all of the different theories about the meaning and the views on the characters and different narratives!
- Edward Hill