George Carlin once said the answer to the age-old question “why are we here” just might be: “Plastic! Assholes!” That is way too simple of an answer for most people, so for thousands of years people have been debating about the meaning of life, what happens after death, and why the bloody hell do we have to die in the first place. The Fountain (2006) by Darren Aronofsky is a convoluted exploration of some of those questions as it follows a version of the same character in three different eras. In each he seeks eternal life, not for him but for the love of his life. It helps she is played by Rachel Weisz.
Before the movie was released it gained notoriety for its troubled production, as it had to shut down because of production costs. If I recall well, they were even auctioning off props of the movie at one point. But then Aronofsky tinkered the script, found ways to make the effects for cheap, and shot the whole thing in Montreal to save money. Upon its release it did not exactly set the box office on fire and the critics had mixed reviews, but it has apparently gained a cult following. As for me, as I am writing this I got to cross the movie off the Empire list last week after I found it on iTunes as part of their 99 cents weekly special. By an odd coincidence, that’s the same week I watched Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which also has a convoluted plotline and themes of life and death. This says a lot about Terence Malick, but I found The Fountain to be marginally more accessible.
Aronofsky’s film stars Hugh Jackman as three characters all on the same quest. In the first sequence he is Tomas, a conquistador at the service of Queen Isabella of Spain (Rachel Weisz). The Queen has sent him to South America to find the mythical Tree of Life, which is in effect the fountain of youth. If Tomas succeeds the Queen hopes it will put an end to a conflict between her and the church and she also promises to spend eternity with Tomas as the new Adam and Eve.
Sometime in the modern-day world Jackman is Tom Creo, a doctor experimenting on chimps with samples from a tree found in South America. Tom is working obsessively to find a cure for his girlfriend Izzy (Weisz again) who is dying from a brain tumour. Even when the tree’s sample delivers amazing results Tom is angry since it has not achieved his ultimate goal: to beat death.
Finally in an unspecified future Jackman plays Tommy, a man travelling through space on some sort of dome-like ship. Inside the ship is a tree, which seemingly holds the soul of Weisz’s soul. Tommy is bald, dressed like a monk, covered in tattoos, and can float inside the ship’s bubble. Once again he is trying to stop his love from dying and fears he might be too late.
Each of these narratives, which could have been separate movies, are connected through various key objects and flashbacks. The Izzie in the present is writing a book about Mayans and conquistadors, which could be the story of Tomas. In outer space Tommy is tattooing his body with ink Izzie gave Tom. Camera shots and lighting echo through each story implying this is all happening to the same person.
This is of course open to interpretation and maybe Aronofsky himself does not know what it all means. The most accessible segment is of course the one that takes place in the present when Tom the doctor is trying to “cure” death. Weisz beautifully plays Izzie as a young woman who has accepted her early demise and even sees beauty if death. She tells Tom of her Mayan studies and of a legend that states that out of death there can also be rebirth. Maybe in the future segment Tommy is on a quest to create that rebirth. Or maybe Tom is just dreaming the whole thing.
This is certainly deep stuff and you could write books about all the themes and ideas evoked. As a movie it is challenging to follow, but it is beautifully shot and both Jackman and Weisz are great no matter whom they are playing.
Now here is a challenge: try watching The Fountain and The Tree of Life as a double feature. If you don’t have any weed, it might be the next best thing.