12 Perfect Shots: A Decade With Darren Aronofsky’s Visual Masterpiece The Fountain

By  · Published on November 22nd, 2016

The Fountain: Separating The Light From The Darkness

An analysis in 12 perfect shots.

“…a search for immortality, when the truth of life is mortality.” – Matthew Libatique

The Fountain is a love story, tragically abbreviated, and today is the tenth anniversary of its release. In the fullness of a decade, it has become not just my favorite Aronofsky film, but one of my favorite films. It’s something I think about, reflect on, change my mind on, and bring up conversationally with surprising regularity. It’s beautiful in both theme and spectacle. Matthew Libatique put together a visual masterpiece as Aronofsky’s Director of Photography. Every single frame might as well be a painting I’d hang on my wall. The composition and lighting of every shot is intentional and full of meaning. While I’m not alone in this appreciation, the politic way to put it would be that the film was divisive.

The Tree of Life

Hellen O’Hara at Empire called it “at heart, a simple Zen fable about love and death.” I agree very much. For such a simple message, its presentation is remarkably dense. I don’t think it’s impenetrably dense, but considering it was released as a Thanksgiving holiday movie it’s unsurprising it didn’t connect with audiences. I think people went in expecting an action-oriented, weirdo, epic fight for life. What they got was, well, something that plays like a heady love story and a celebration of death. It’s made up of a multi-cultural series of mostly obscure reference points and mashed into an epic tale spanning a millennia with multiple iterations of the same characters. With this one, you’re either in or you’re out. I was in from my first watch. The truth is, The Fountain is speaking my language.

Defeated By The Guardian

The strange thing, then, is that I’ve only watched it a handful of times in the last ten years. For a movie so defiantly about living this life, it’s told through the lens of a painful death. It makes for a fairly heavy watch. At the beginning, I called The Fountain a love story. That isn’t exactly correct. It is most certainly the primary plot of the film, but it isn’t what the movie is. Fable, or perhaps parable, is very much the correct word for the film. It plays to me as an instruction on the importance of the inevitability of death.

So, that’s pretty heavy. And maybe a bit of a downer. Let’s do a quick break out of the various plot lines to expand and explore the happier side of that idea. A major hurdle for most folks seemed to be, “what did I just watch?” There are three separate stories being told: one in the past, one in the present, and one in the future.

The movie is ten years old, but in case you haven’t seen it: heads up! Spoilers below.

Starting To See The Light

In the present, Hugh Jackman plays Thomas Creo, who is a neurosurgeon searching for a cure to brain diseases. His wife Izzi, played by Rachel Weisz, has a brain tumor that is slowly killing her. Creo is so consumed by his search for a cure that he loses sight of the importance of spending time with his wife now. He gambles his finite amount of time with her on discovering the ability to create more time. As she comes closer to dying, he spends more time researching a cure. She does her best to explain to him that she has made her peace. At one point, she calls him out to their roof – in the snow – to show him the nebula Xibalba, the physical location of the Mayan underworld, according to their myths. She explains her amazement that the Mayans could have picked a dying nebula out of the nighttime sky to be the representation of their underworld. He doesn’t get it. He and his team ultimately succeed in an amazing breakthrough that may well be the cure for death. Unfortunately, the cure comes too late for Izzi. He is consumed by grief after her death.

A Bubbleship In Xibalba

In the past, Jackman is now Tomas Verde on a mission from Weisz’s Queen Isabella to find the Tree of Life. Spain is caught up in the throes of the inquisition and Queen Isabella has given him this quest to find the Tree of Life in the New World in the hopes that it will put an end to the turmoil in the kingdom.

In the New World, with their faith in his sanity shaken, Tomas’s men rebel. He murders the instigators and spares those who promise to stay with him out of fear for their lives. After finding the pyramid, Tomas makes his way to the top. The Mayan priest, and guardian of the prize, mortally wounds him. Things get a bit odd from there. The priest has a vision of future Tommy and surrenders to Tomas. Tomas kills him and makes his way to the Tree of Life. He stabs the tree and drinks its sap. It’s a hollow victory, though. Rather than give him new life, the tree’s sap allows life to spring out of him in the form of a nice new bed of flowers. The look of confusion and perhaps betrayal on Tomas’s face as he is consumed by new life is haunting.

The Circle

In the future, Jackman is Tommy. Presumably, he is the same character as he was in the present. More to follow on that. He is traveling through space in a bubble ship. His traveling companions are a dying tree and visions of Izzi. Their destination is Xibalba, the nebula pointed out by Izzi in the present. Tommy is struggling with the memories of his past as he heads to the physical representation of the Mayan underworld. He is still driven by his quest to bring life to Izzi as he hurtles towards death. As he nears the nebula, the tree dies, and he is suddenly alone. In that moment, he realizes that his journey was never about Izzi’s loss, but his own fear of mortality. As he realizes this, he accepts the inevitability of his fate and is consumed by the light of the exploding nebula.

Tai Chi Star Man

What’s really going on? That’s the question most folks have coming out of this movie. I focused on the events of the film for quite some time after my first watch. There are a couple of ways the plot lines can be broken out with varying implications. One thing to keep in mind about a parable is that the exact nature of the events are not wholly significant. Events matter, sure. Especially as far as basically understanding what the hell you just watched. But, with parables it comes down to the choices made and the nature of those choices.

In that regard, it doesn’t matter if Thomas and Izzi are the reincarnated versions of conquistador and Queen. It doesn’t matter if Tommy is living an eternal life, having discovered the cure for death as Thomas. The story can be science fiction, metaphysical religious treatise or fairy tale. But, you don’t have to be hung up on which it is to appreciate the message of the film. Folks not on board for the film will call that a dodge for a poorly assembled piece of world building. And there’s an argument to be had there. For my money, it’s an elegant solution to presenting a nebulous story with a definitive message.

That said, just what the hell is going on?

I Am Your Queen

The past is entirely Izzi’s creation. It is simply the story she gives to Thomas. Well, it’s more than just a story. It is an allegory for the journey she is on and the message she hopes to impart to Thomas. Spain is Izzi. The inquisition is the disease and darkness consuming her. Queen Isabelle is the voice of Spain. And Tomas, loyal servant to the Crown, is the manifestation of Thomas Creo’s love and commitment to saving Izzi.

This is the most heart wrenching construction of the movie. Izzi can see that Thomas’s quest to cure her is destroying him. Whether he succeeds or not, it is burning out his humanity. She wrote him this story in the hope that he would see the dangerous path that he was walking. Remember how brutally focused Tomas is on achieving his goals. He murders his men for rebelling after he’s had them marching around the jungles of a foreign land for an undefined amount of time. This mirrors the painful interactions with his research team in the present.

More than that, remember that she leaves the story unfinished. Her version ends as Tomas ascends the pyramid and is stabbed by the guardian. She tells him he will have to finish the story. She wrote that story for him, unfinished, to drive home the point that despite her end his story will continue. But, not in a “Oh, everything will be lovely and you can find lovely love again!” sort of way. Thomas is at a critical moment in his existence. He is in jeopardy. He’s just been delivered a blow that might well be a mortal wound: the death of Izzi. The choices he makes now will decide the rest of his life.

Do you see the tree of life?

The big question then is whether or not the future Tommy is real. It’s certainly possible that it is real. At the end of Thomas’s story it’s implied that the cure they discovered may not just be the cure for degenerative brain diseases but that it may well be the cure for aging.

My take is that it doesn’t matter, but it’s super sad if he is Thomas five hundred years older. I prefer to think that Tommy is as much an allegory as Tomas is. In my mind, this is Thomas’s view of his interaction with Izzi as she is dying. He’s isolated, in space, on a journey to the land of the dead with nothing but haunting, painful memories to keep him company. He knows where he’s going, but everything else around him is dark and isolating.

This journey, despite being to the land of the dead, is perpetually towards the light. This is where the genius of the cinematography comes into focus. From the start, all versions of Thomas tend to be in the dark, which represents his lack of understanding. As he progresses through the movie and comes to appreciate various pieces of the truth, he enters into the light.

Comparatively, Izzi spends much of her on screen time in light. When she has the seizure at the museum, she basically has a spotlight on her. Her understanding of death and her acceptance of it as an essential component of life may frighten her at times, but it’s importance is never lost to her.

Check this out. Do you recall the image above where Tomas is kneeling before his Queen? His back is to the light. Her face is towards the light and she is radiant. From Tomas’s perspective, she is the light. That’s the key challenge Thomas Creo has to overcome in the course of the movie. He believes she is the truth of his life and he is incapable of separating his love for her from the fundamental truth that life ends.

Touching the Tree of Life
“It’s so often that you’re home the day after you saw a movie and you can’t remember what the hell you saw the night before. But then sometimes you see movies that just stay with you and create a conversation.” – Darren Aronofsky via CinemaBlend

That quote couldn’t ring more true. I don’t watch this movie all that often for the very reason that it resonates with me for ages. Also, I openly weep through this flick. Just because I am unashamed to admit that does not mean I’m always geared up for such an emotional experience. But, this is what film is about, right? Engagement with challenging material. And conversation! I understand this particular movie won’t be for everyone. Of course that’s so. But, throughout this movie it is evident that Aronofsky had an agenda for every shot. Despite the overall simplicity of the message, it demands contemplation.

The discussion questions range from the simple to the existential. Is Thomas Creo’s obsessive pursuit for a cure a noble sacrifice or pure selfishness? The discussion of character motivation paves the way for a discussion about how we decide to spend our existence. Should we pursue knowledge or life with our time? We applaud passion, but is there a cost? Does the nature of passion blind us to certain things which should be obvious? How do we tell the difference between a joyful passion and obsession driven by terror? Is brutality an acceptable tool in the pursuit of life? How do we know that we are living? Should the certainty of death be seen as inescapable truth or embraced as the very thing that defines life? Is death a self-fulfilling promise if I hope that, when it is my time to go, I demonstrate the grace and compassion of Izzi? Questions and questions and questions.

Receiving the Circle

Death is scary. Right? In my experience, my own mortality is a concept I can appreciate in bursts, but can’t retain for extended periods of time. What am I saying? Our existence is hardwired in such a way that I think it makes it challenging to remember the inevitable conclusion for all of us is death. And that’s a tragedy. Death is the defining characteristic of life. And that definition is the thing which gives value to our time. Our wiring tends to prevent us from appreciating the value of our minutes. Humans are weird, right?

Or, maybe I’m weird? Or, maybe it’s late and I’m feeling maudlin? I’m not drunk, that’s for sure. Stone cold sober, as a matter of fact, after reflecting on death for such an extended period. Regardless. These words have been my thoughts. That’s what the best of cinema should do. Inspire thinking.

What do you think? Is The Fountain a cinematic masterpiece? What does the film say to you? What other symbolism and metaphors do you see Aronofsky working with?


Image Source: Screen Musings

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.