In 2000, Darren Aronofsky released Requiem for a Dream, which was a critical success. Even with that being the case, it still took nearly five years for him to start filming his next film, The Fountain, a very ambitious project with three different storylines.
The film takes place in 1505, 2005, and 2505. The majority of the story takes place during 2005, where we follow a neuroscientist, Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman), and his wife, Izzi (Rachel Weisz), who is in a losing battle with cancer. As her time runs out, he spends most of his time trying to figure out a cure to save her. Not just save her from cancer, but death in general.
During her time away from Tom, she writes a book that takes place in 1505 about Queen Isabella (also Weisz) who turns to a conquistador, Tomás Verde (also Jackman), to try and win back land that was lost during the Inquisition. On this piece of land, Tomás will eventually find the Tree of Life.
Izzi is learning as much as she can of Mayan history from a nearby museum to write her book, and doing in so, she learns about the rituals and beliefs that the Mayans held. Including that of a star, known as Xibalba, which acts as their underworld, where everyone’s soul will float just as it’s about to explode and give birth to everything again. And here is where the third storyline comes in, as Tommy (you guessed it, Jackman again) is in a bubble with the Tree of Life floating to the star.
As the film continues in Aronofsky fashion, we cut back between all three storylines continuously and sometimes the stories mimic and mirror one another. There are shots and movements that are duplicated across them all to get you more invested and help you understand that they’re all connected. Because, in the end, the film is about something very simple: coming to terms with death.
Izzi doesn’t survive, and she tells Tom that she is in love with the idea that death can be an act of creation. She mentions a story about a Mayan guide who told her that when his father died, he wouldn’t believe it. He believed that if they dug his father up, he would be gone, because when he was buried they planted a seed over his grave. This seed became a tree, and his father’s soul was part of that tree, and as that tree grew and bore fruit which would later be eaten by a bird, his father would then fly with the birds. This is what Izzi believes in as well, that death isn’t final but, as the guide tells her, death is the road to awe.
Izzi puts some of this into the story she has written, but as she has gotten sicker and sicker, she is unable to finish the story and so asks Tom to finish it for her. As Tom reads the story, we travel with him back to Central America in the 16th century, trying to make sense of life, dreaming of the future where he brings the Tree of Life (eventually revealed to be Izzi) to be reborn. But even in his imaginings of the future, the tree dies moments before he reaches Xibalba.
The Fountain is a beautiful film about coming to terms with your own death, and Aronofsky shows that wonderfully through the gorgeous visuals of cinematographer Matthew Libatique and the score by Clint Mansell. He creates an almost dream-like world where all that happens is open to interpretation, except for the ending, where Tom finally finishes the story, and by doing so, is ready for Izzi to pass away.
This film also has a scene that is identical to one from Ikiru (which translates to “to live”) in which the protagonist receives bad news and then walks toward the left of the frame, right before almost getting hit by a car, while no sound plays right. It seems that Aronofsky looked to Kurosawa’s classic film (also about coming to terms with your own death) as inspiration for his work. Sadly, The Fountain is typically regarded as his lesser film but I think that it’s not only extremely ambitious, but also inspiring and magnificent. It makes our own long road to awe a little more exciting.