The Fountain

Those of you who have not seen the movie might want to look away. I suspect there will be spoilers.

The Fountain is this movie by Darren Aronofsky about a doctor, Tom, researching an experimental drug from the Guatemalan jungle in order to find a cure for his wife Izzi’s brain cancer. There are two other parallel timelines: an alt-historical treasure hunt framed as a story-within-story written by the dying Izzi to her husband, and a far-future psychedelic space voyage of spiritual discovery in the tradition of 2001 (not to mention a certain Tool video), which I think we are supposed to interpret as a manifestation of Tom’s internal conflict as journey of self-discovery.

Aronofsky has only made two other movies in his career. I have not seen Requiem for a Dream. I’ve kind of been avoiding it because of what I understand the content to be, ie too fucked up for my palate. I’ve seen Pi, and it has a similarly ethereal quality and nonlinear structure. Also a similar running thread of unpleasant head trauma raised to mystical significance, which may or may not turn out to be relevant.

The ‘fountain’ of the title is the Fountain of Youth, that thing Ponce de Leon was supposed to have been looking for in the jungles of Florida in 1521, the mythical spring of eternal life. But the theme of The Fountain actually ends up being death–fear of death, denial and acceptance, death as spiritual journey. Like Pi, this is an idea story. It fits into a tradition of nonlinear SF film with 2001, Solaris, AI etc. People tend to be annoyed by these movies. I tend to get really psyched about them. And I started to get really psyched about The Fountain, for the first twenty minutes or so, when it became clear that the alt-historical story-within-story was about a Spanish conquistador who, at the behest of his queen, had gone looking for eternal life, not in the bayous of southern Florida, but in the jungles of the Peten–and that the source of eternal life was not a fountain, but a tree.

The Fountain leans heavily on Mayan mythology, albeit in a revisionist sense. It focuses particularly on one image, that of the Mayan cross or sacred tree. Franciscan monks in the service of Cortes, upon encountering this symbol, mistook it for a muddled heathen desecration of the Christian cross, and used it as justification for summarily destroying every piece of Maya writing, art or culture they could get their hands on. Aronofsky’s lone monk does just the opposite: he takes the cross as evidence that the same God exists on both sides of the Atlantic, and the Mayan Tree of Life is the same one that grew next to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Which is a fascinating premise, and one with which a lot of different stories could be told. Of course, a lot of those stories would very likely suck, and I’ve got to give Aronofsky credit for not turning this into a Da Vinci Code-style thriller. (Which I guess is what Pi was now that I think about it, but low-budget, with a kickass soundtrack and mystical head trauma.) Unfortunately, and despite having a reasonably kickass soundtrack of its own, not to mention the absolutely beautiful visuals, the story he did decide to tell doesn’t work.

Part of it is that he just tries to do too much. The movie’s only 90 minutes long, and he’s cramming in a near-future SF setting, a historical fantasy setting, and a far-future drunkass Tool video ripoff setting (no really, go ahead, watch The Fountain, then go watch the Tool Parabola video), and then trying to knit them all together into a coherent whole. So for the first twenty minutes, I was staring at the screen with my jaw around my ankles, thinking “Damn. Mayans, immortality, wierdass postcolonial commentary, psychedelia… this bastard is stealing all my thunder!” But after another twenty minutes, when he’s not done bringing in new crazy shit and is already dropping old crazy shit by the wayside, I start to lose hope.

At the center of this rapid spiral out of control (I think) is the least-developed and most abstract of the three parallel timelines: the music video bit, where an inexplicably hairless Tom, dressed up like a monk, rides a psychedelic spirit spaceship composed of a small lump of rock out of which grows the dying remnant of the Tree of Life into the heart of the Orion Nebula. Which we have been taught to equate with Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, thus allowing us to interpret this journey as another representation of Tom’s deluded effort to find the cure for brain cancer/drink the sap of the Tree of Life, and thus provide immortality both to himself and the dying Izzi. And that’s the wierd thing about my negative reaction to this whole thing: it’s all there. The connections are there, the clues are all made available to us. I am required only to follow the threads to pull it all together. Were this AI I was watching, or 2001 for that matter, I would be absoutely tickled pink at the opportunity to do just that–to find some wonked-out means to draw a line between that monkey picking up the bone and the baby gestating in orbit around the earth. So what’s the deal? Why am I so annoyed? It is because Aronofsky made everything too easy, because instead of a three hour epic he gave me a flip 90 minutes crammed so full of unaddressed ideas he had to dangle the important ones right in front of my nose?

Critics called The Fountain ‘inaccessible’ and ‘innovative’. I’m actually kind of surprised to find that I don’t think it’s either. I had no trouble following the three plots, intuiting how they were supposed to interweave. At the end I knew exactly what I was supposed to think. And through the whole thing, I couldn’t stop myself making comparisons. In this scene he’s cribbing from Kubrick, here from Soderbergh, over here from Charlie Kaufman (mostly Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Why the fuck does Tom have to be bald to ride his crazy psychedelic spaceship? Why is he wearing that buddhist monk habit? Because Aronofsky wants us thinking of Neo, waking up in his tub of nutrient goo and putting on those coarse grey clothes that smack of Ultimate Truth. And yeah–I just kept coming back to that Tool video.

None of which, really, detracts from the flabbergasting beauty of the movie’s color palette and the nature of its visuals. Honestly, this movie is worth seeing just for that one shot of the hall in the Great Mosque at Cordoba in darkness, its shadows strewn with hanging candles like a field of stars.

That said, I think the rest of it could have done just as well as a ten minute music video–and without trampling all over my favorite themes.


  1. So I completely and absolutely adore this movie. But you know this.

    But are you ready for me to blow part of your interpretation out the window?

    The space!Tom isn’t actually real-time future. It is present!Tom’s continuation of Izzie’s story. He’s trying to finish her book and deal with his own grief at the same time. The past and the future storylines are all fiction that are written by those in the present.

    I hope that makes sense. My make isn’t quite firing this morning. ๐Ÿ™‚ But that’s my and several others’ interpretation. Because you can’t explain the future!Tom’s presence in the past storyline otherwise.

    1. Heh. You must do more than that to blow my interpretation out the window.

      Yes, I gathered that the psychedelic space journey is just a manifestation of his internal conflict, not an actual psychedelic space journey. Just like the alt-historical bit with the queen and the conquistador is just a manifestation of Izzi’s interpretation of the struggles both she and Tom are going through. But the question of what exactly comprises Tom’s ending to Izzi’s story, I think, is subject to interpretation. Unless we are to take it that Tom is just not as good a writer as Izzi, and thus his ending is slapdash, disconnected and obvious, and brings in inexplicable elements of Eastern philosophy and baldness.

      But wait. When was future!Tom in the past? Or do you just mean that, yes, the spaceship he is riding is obviously composed of that same tree that killed past!Tom, and that thus his journey to Xibalba (complete with Izzi flashbacks) must necessarily be a continuation of both past!Tom and present!Tom’s storylines?

      1. I’ll try to do more next time. ๐Ÿ™‚

        You missed future!Tom in the past? When the conquistador was facing the guardian of the temple to the Tree of Life, the guardian struck out, and then backed away, because suddenly the conquistador appeared as future!Tom, floating in place, in a meditative position. The guardian says that future!Tom is who this garden belongs to anyway (or something along those lines) and doesn’t kill him. Then future!Tom is back as the conquistador, and the conquistador slays the guardian before entering the garden and the tree of life.

        I haven’t seen this since it was released. I plan on picking up the next version of the dvd when it’s released. ๐Ÿ™‚

        1. Ah, yes. I do remember that. The Maya dude mistook him for First Father. For Christ, basically. So if you wanted to you could stop calling the inexplicably hairless guy Future!Tom and start calling him IncrediblyDistantPast!Tom. But I think it would be just as effective to call him Abstraction!Tom, since he doesn’t actually physically exist, I would argue, in any of the three timelines. He is entirely a symbol. Which may be why I didn’t remember this until you mentioned it. the vision of him came across almost like a narratorial intrusion: hey, fool, it’s all just a story, see? There’s Neo pulling the strings!

          Pardon my grumpitude. I did enjoy the movie. More than Maggie anyway. Mostly my expectations were probably too high.

  2. I feel like a cretin because I hated this movie, but apparently for all the wrong reasons. But then, I’ve never been a fan of “2001”, in spite of watching it three times, thinking that I would figure out what made it great.

    Although I would never sit through “The Fountain” for a subsequent viewing under any circumstances. I am so glad that I wasn’t captive in a theater, but saw it on DVD, just over a week ago.

    My mental powers are apparently so dull, that I didn’t get anything while watching it. The only reason that I put together as much as I did was because of what I’d already read about the movie before seeing it. What symbolism that I did pick up annoyed me.

    The contemporary storyline was the only one that I really could follow, although I didn’t buy it. Mad scientist searching for a last minute cure for cancer, cutting up monkeys–it sounds so much more interesting that it was.

    The past sequences were the most interesting to me but also the most frustrating. I really wanted to see more of that part of the story. But in the end, the native priest offers his throat up to a Spaniard in sacrifice–ugh, that didn’t set well with me. The white conqueror turns out to be “The One”?

    As for the bald-headed guy and tree parts, I just watched the photography and thought about the time I went to “2001” after smoking some dope. It didn’t help and I suspect it wouldn’t have helped with “The Fountain”. It’s the kind of movie that potheads used to watch with the sound off and music turned up loud, back in my day.

    Maybe the real reason I detested this movie is that it made me feel dumb and dumber, because I was supposed to “get it”, and I never did. But the worst thing about this movie is that it bored me silly. And that is the worst thing any movie (or book) can do, imo.

    1. I agree about the throat-slitting. I really was hoping, when we saw the Inquisitor and the Queen, that this movie was going to try to redeem the Conqueror archetype, humanize this guy by removing all the realist humdrum stuff about enslaving Mayans and burning books etc and sticking to his personal inner conflict. But it didn’t happen.

      On the other hand, 2001 kicks ass. Even when I’m sober. Evil computer! Psychedelic hyperbaby! Cosmic rectangle of doom!

  3. Warning, fragmented thoughts ahead.

    I enjoyed “The Fountain” because I went to see it in the theater with my Aunt Boots. She’s a member of the Bahรก’รญ faith and quite a character. She’s one of the few counter-culture type people I know in Iowa. Most everyone else here was manufactured by a factory in 1948. One of the things I shared with her is my fondness for a crazy musician named Stuart Davis. He’s a self described twisted mystic and punk monk, buddhist and part of the Integral Institute; Ken Wilber’s cult-like school of introspective psychology. Boots and I went to see Stuart in concert and had a nice time. He’ll sing a song about finding higher consciousness then another one about having three-way sex. Anyway, the point is a couple months ago Stuart posted a really interesting review of “The Fountain”, link here: Also he did a ten minute interview with Darren Aronofsky, unfortunately I can’t find that online, but I could send it to you if you’d like to hear it.

    So to try and make a point. I thought it was an interesting movie. You make many valid points about it. I think Darren is at least sincere in trying to make a movie that presents difficult concepts in an interesting way. The stuff about death and rebirth. My conclusion is that it’s a good movie to see then discuss afterward with interesting people like Boots, Stuart, and with you Mike. I rented it a few weeks ago and watched it with my parents, and they both enjoyed it with some reservations. If it was longer I think it might be too draining an experience. (I felt bored after “2001”). I hate people who say things like ‘if you didn’t like this movie you didn’t get it, it was over your head’ but I do kind of think “The Fountain” was so rich in symbols and interpretations that some people, the everyday automatons, wouldn’t have much to say afterward. I think strange movies are a good thing, even if they fail to deliver fully. I’ll go check out the Tool video. Thanks for posting your review, I enjoyed reading it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *