The Fountain: a beautiful mess or something more? If you look up reviews , you’ll be confronted with two extremes: those that thought it was sheer drivel and those that thought it was the one of most incredible film ever. Why such a disparity?
Each opinion is a function of how many aspects the viewer appreciated from this multifaceted work. Those that gave it a 1/10 likely did so because they judged it primarily on the story itself (which was basic at its core). Everything else was superfluous or pretentious. That is rather unfortunately because the story represents only a third of this work and not necessarily the most important part. In fact, in some ways the story serves as a vehicle for the ideas and high concept imagery. Those that gave it anywhere from a 7/10 to 10/10 either highly appreciated one aspect or appreciated more than aspects. Perhaps only a small minority of the 10/10s fully appreciated all three aspects and was briefly transported into the mind of the creator.
This article will start by briefly explaining the story, but its main focus will be on the film’s ideas and symbols, arguably the most inaccessible aspect for most people. I believe that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but no one should dislike something largely out of ignorance. This article is geared towards people who have already seen the film, so it contains SPOILERS.
So people disagree about the story. That makes things interesting, but for this article to be effective, it helps to be on the same page. Here is the simplest explanation of the plot that I could come up with. Stop reading here and skip down to the next section if you still want to figure things out for yourself.
The story is confusing mainly because it is told in non-chronological fragments. This confusion can be greatly reduced by accepting reincarnation as a key element. Thus the protagonists (Tomas/Tommy/Tom) are all the same person, reincarnated over a thousand years until he unlocks the science of immortality. Isabella/Izzy is also reincarnated many times until Tommy drops the seed on her grave and she becomes the Tree of Life. Based on these assumptions, we can then reorder the plot sequences to yield a chronological story timeline that goes something like this:
- Past – Isabella starts Tomas on his quest for eternal life. He finds the Tree of Life but dies because he is unworthy. They both are reincarnated until the present.
- Present – Izzy is dying but comes to terms with it. Tommy refuses to accept it. Izzy write The Fountain, an unfinished book about their past, and asks him to “finish it.” She dies. Tommy throws himself into researching the Tree and unlocking the science of immortality. He drops a seed on Izzy’s grave, and she becomes a Tree.
- Future – Tom and the Tree are approaching the dying star, Xibalba. The Tree begins to die. Tom despairs but finally “finishes” The Fountain when he lets go and embraces death. The star explodes, Tom dies, and the Tree bursts into life, all of which serve to create their universe. In effect, the universe loops upon itself: Tom is both Last Man and First Father.
The search for eternal life is the quintessential human endeavor, cutting across all cultures and human pursuits. The Holy Grail. The Cure for Cancer. One is mystical, the other scientific. Yet they are fundamentally the same. Tomas starts off in the jungle, chasing the mystical and ends up in the laboratory, chasing the scientific. Yet his objective is the same in both cases: the Tree (more on this later).
The story could also be seen as one about the pursuit of greatness, about how lonely it is. Think about it. For a thousand years, Tomas/Tommy/Tom is largely alone. He only sees the one he loves here and there and then not at all. All his followers die in the jungle. The other researchers struggle to keep up with his breakneck pace. By the end, he is the Last Man. Everyone he ever knew is dead. And yet he presses on.
It is also a personal journey to confront our greatest fear: death. Despite all our scientific knowledge and religious beliefs, most people are still afraid to die when their time comes. Stripped of everything like Tom the space traveler, each person must come to terms with it alone. No one can do that for you.
Journey through names
You can follow the hero’s journey through the evolution of his name: Tomas, Tommy Creo, Tom. According to the New Testament, Thomas the Apostle doubts Jesus’ resurrection and demands extraordinary proof before believing it (aka Doubting Thomas). He then professes his faith and is sometimes called “Thomas the Believer.” In the film, Tomas the Conquistador is a follower of Isabella who accepts her mission but later, as Tommy Creo, has trouble accepting her death. This is ironic because “Creo” in Spanish means “I believe.” Confronted with extraordinary circumstances at the end, Tom the space traveler finally believes. With no fancy title or even a surname, he is simply a man now.
Thomas the Apostle is also believed to have traveled farther than any other Apostle. In the same way, Tom travels far from earth to another star.
The Tree is a great symbol for this film. Not only does it have religious ties (Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden), but it also has scientific ties as well. Many of our medicines are derived from plants, which is why many scientists are so concerned with the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. So many plants there have yet to be discovered. What if the cure for cancer is there, and we unknowingly destroy it? Trees are the closest living things to immortality. Some species are known to live for more than a thousand years.
The West has a polarized view of the world. Black and white. Good and evil. Right and wrong. At first, the conquistador is religion, so self-righteousness that it is willing to kill all who oppose it. Now, the conquistador is science, whose determination to demystify the world and banish death borders on religious fervor. And yet how is the West so sure that there is only one right answer, one “proper” way to do things? Eastern thought is more circular, more accepting of plurality and ambiguity, and often dismissed by the West for such qualities. Is there no middle ground, no reconciliation? Such tension seems to permeate the film.
The Fountain somehow distorts our perception of time. One of my favorite questions to first time viewers is, ‘How long do you think this film is?’ Most say 2 hours or more. It’s only 96 minutes, but it feels much longer. There are two possible reasons for this. First, having three storylines over a large timescale contributes to a feeling of ‘epicness.’ Second, the level of emotional intensity sustained throughout the film leaves many viewers rather spent by the end.
The wheel or circle
This is a very common symbol in Eastern thought. No beginning or end, everything is related, part of the same whole. Most people understand this idea already, so I’m just going to briefly point out some of its uses and appearances in the film.
- Wheel of time – The entire story is a circle. Tom is both First Father and Last Man. He has presumably been reincarnated many times (circles within circles) until effectively becoming immortal at the end.
- Cycle of life and death – Death begets life. Life leads to death. Without one, there is not the other. This is not just a religious idea; you can see it in science too, e.g. the carbon cycle, the forging of heavier elements through multiple stellar explosions.
- Rings of time – A great scene shows how Tom the space traveler tracks time by tattooing himself with rings, like tree rings.
- Concentric rings – Tom flies toward Xibalba, a seemingly endless series of concentric rings.
- Spherical spaceship – A sphere is basically the 3D version of the circle.
- The ring – The traditional symbol of endless love or commitment. Did you wonder why he loses the ring twice, once as a conquistador and once as a scientist? I could be wrong, but to me, it’s because he hadn’t quite earned it in both those instances. Only when he finally learns and accepts the real lesson does he get it back. And why does he get it back from the conquistador and not the scientist? You guessed it. It completes the wheel/circle.
- Music – The music is minimalist, haunting, and insistently repeats the same themes in cycles.
Here are a few nice touches that people might have missed or dismissed offhand.
- Progressive lighting – Did you notice how the film got lighter as the timeline progressed? As in dark (jungle), muted/neutral tones (laboratory), and brilliant (Xibalba). For those that criticized Xibalba for being too glittery, think about it for a minute: he is going into a dying star. Have you seen pictures from the Hubble telescope? If not, please google them. Stellar explosions are one of the most amazing spectacles in the universe. If anything, the visuals are understated when compared to the real thing.
- Gold – The gold color was used because it symbolizes desire/obsession and fits particularly well with the Mayan/Spanish theme. It is also connected with “fool’s gold,” something that you covet but then realize is not what you wanted.
- The star map – Most people don’t bother with the credit roll, but this one is sort of interesting. As you watch, you can see clumps of light start to appear over time in the background. This is in fact what scientists say happened after the Big Bang (look up WMAP to learn more). Matter began clumping together rather quickly and eventually became the galaxies we see today.
Conclusion – Hopefully you found this article helpful or interesting, and maybe you will consider giving The Fountain another chance. It is noteworthy that so many people have such a strong opinion about it, one way or another. The Fountain is a remarkable film that will continue to be talked about long after others are forgotten. I, for one, admire Aronofsky’s courage and persistence in getting it made.
Need more on your Road to Awe? Check out this video. It’s the best one I’ve seen so far.
And here is another.