In early 2002, fresh off the cult success and critical acclaim of his first two films Pi and Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky began production on The Fountain, a film based on a grand vision with a much grander budget than any of Aronofsky’s previous work. Producer Eric Watson described it as, “the movie that we’ve been wanting to make” since he and Aronofsky began making movies some fifteen years prior. However, 19 million dollars into the project, Warner Brothers canceled production after Brad Pitt, tapped for the lead, backed out.
After two years and multiple script re-writes, production would begin again, albeit with less than half the original budget. That Aronofsky fought so long and hard to make his movie is to his credit; his passion for the story shines through clearly. And, although the film as a whole failed to convince most critics of its worth, any faults lay in its occasional crossing over from passion to that most uncool trait, earnestness. Maybe, but earnestness in a film can be easily forgiven, and it certainly isn’t a good to dismiss it entirely.
The Fountain is a window into one man’s moment of grief, and for the most part it is told very well. But, tragically, the movie’s grand vision fails to achieve greatness for the same reason that any answer to pain fails to comfort in one’s moment of grief. Just at the moment when grief is the only appropriate response, Aronofsky reaches for resolution and, predictably, achieves only triteness.
Aronofsky tells us his story in three connected plot lines which can be broken down into past, present, and future. The past and future are allegories, in a loose sense, of the events happening in the present.
The story centers around a middle-aged, married couple and their struggle to understand the idea of death, specifically their fear of it. Izzi Creo (Rachel Weisz), we learn, has been slowly dying of brain cancer. By the time we are brought into the story, it is clear that she doesn’t have much time left. Her husband, Tommy (Hugh Jackman), is a brilliant scientist desperate to discover a cure before she dies.
There is a tree in South America, he discovers, that holds such a cure, which Tommy tests on a monkey. Not only does it cure the monkey, but it also has the inexplicable effect of reversing the aging process. Ecstatic at the thought of saving his wife, Tommy rushes to the hospital to tell her. But Tom is too late; Izzi dies before she can be saved.
Long before she dies, however, we learn that Izzi has been writing a book, the setting of which is 16th century Spain. Isabella, Queen of Spain, sits alone against the growing and sinister power of the High Inquisitor of the Catholic Church. Surrounded on all sides, the possibility that the Tree of Life has been found in South America is the only piece of hope that Isabella has. Her faithful servant, Tomas, is charged with leading an expedition to find the tree and bring it back. After months of fruitless searching and the death of every other member of the expedition, Tomas finds the tree atop an ancient Mayan temple guarded by a blood-soaked priest. Tomas, is allowed to drink from the sap but realizes too late that it does not grant the eternal life that he had imagined.
Izzi’s last instruction to Tommy is to finish this story, which he subsequently does in a manner that fits his character. Tommy is a scientist, and the story that he tells is a piece of science fiction. In this storyline, a man travels through space in a spherical space ship with a tree that is slowly dying. Although we are never given a name, it becomes clear that the man is Tommy, and the tree is representative of Izzi. They are traveling to Xibalba, which, we learn from Izzi, is the dying star that the Mayans believed to be the underworld. To the man, Xibalba also represents the hope of saving the dying tree. Eventually, the ship reaches the dying star, and the tree is given new life, but again not in the manner that the man expects.
This non-linear weaving through scenes of past, present, and future has been the most common complaint about the film. But, while confusing, I think it actually works quite well. In telling the story in these three independent but connected storylines, Aronofsky has found a creative and original way to reveal how Tommy and Izzi think about the events that are occurring. Izzi had been writing the book, and those events give us insight into her thoughts. The futuristic space journey does the same for Tommy. In this way, the acting and visuals are given the task to reveal each characters’ internal struggle, and the movie is better for it.
Those two elements, visuals and acting, really are superb, regardless of the film’s other failings. Aronofsky’s originality of vision plays a large part in whatever success the film has, especially in the scenes set in space. Rather than rely on CGI, he takes a page from Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and limits its use as much as possible. Each background for the space scenes is actually a chemical reaction in a petri dish, captured with a micro camera. The end result is a world that looks real, because it is. Too often, such visuals would distract the viewer from the story simply because all CGI inevitably and quickly becomes dated. The Fountain’s visuals will never have that particular problem.
Likewise, no small part of the film’s allure is the acting of Hugh Jackman and Rachael Weisz, who impart life to each character in a manner that is nothing short of sublime. Their work is extraordinary, made all the more-so when one considers that they’ve been given the difficult task of revealing a relationship that would be all too easy to make ridiculous with saccharine affection.
For the majority of the film, Aronofsky allows his audience to follow along with a husband and wife who are entirely sympathetic. We are taught compassion by the reality of their grief, which Jackman especially makes tangible. Aronofsky should have left it there. But he doesn’t. Instead of being content to teach his audience, he tries to teach his characters and gerrymander a resolution that feels neither right nor real.
In one particularly poignant scene, we find Tommy in the bedroom of his house, the place of the deepest kind of intimacy that is possible between humans, a place in which Aronofsky allows us to fully understand the deep affection between Izzi and Tommy. Izzi had just died. With a cry of despair and confusion, Tom lashes out and breaks a lamp on the bedside table, spilling the pen and ink set Izzi had given him to finish her story. Instead of rushing to clean it up, he lets it drip slowly down to the floor, then takes the pen and begins to tattoo a ring on his wedding finger. Throughout the scene, Jackman masterfully speaks through his eyes and his tears, and in the face of such grief the only right response would be silence. For Aronofsky, the only right response would be to end the film. Better to let the grief of death lie unresolved than cheapen something of such power with any sort of resolution. Somehow, in the space of the final ten minutes, Tommy learns that death is, as Izzi says, an “act of creation,” and the only cure is acceptance.
The problem with this resolution to death and pain is not that it’s wrong, although as Christians we know that it is; it is true that, contrary to Aronofsky, death is not something to be accepted, but an enemy that Christ defeated. The problem is that the film felt the need to resolve the story at all. It reminds me of a professor I had in college, whose wife a daughter were killed in a car accident. At the time he said that his grief was overwhelming. But it was made all the worse when an acquaintance tried to comfort him by saying that it was all in God’s plan. It was simply to wrong time to say it, whether or not it was true.
Ultimately, The Fountain fails in the exact same way, by pushing too far. Death and loss and grief are raw flesh laid bare; all answers or reasons given in those moments we experience such things are like rubbing salt on a bare wound.