There is a regularly cited quotation from Woody Allen that goes like this: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work[,] I want to achieve it though not dying.” Granted, NYC’s comic prince isn’t the first name to inspire the tongue when tasked with revisiting The Fountain or, indeed, any film from Darren Aronofsky’s characteristically bleak oeuvre, and yet its sentiment is decidedly apt; in The Fountain Aronofsky is both auteur filmmaker and philosopher, pitching himself against the grandest of themes, tackling life’s evanescence and death’s insurmountable constancy and, in this task, Aronofsky confronts both aspects of Allen’s thought by providing a piece of work about the pursuit of eternal life that is startlingly transcendental.
The moral of Aronofsky’s elegy to love, life, and memory is, in fact, astonishingly simple given the film’s seemingly complex narratology: ambition can be destructive and we can ultimately destroy the thing (or person) we love. What the film lacks in ambition, narratively speaking, it more than makes up for in its strength of feeling and provides Hugh Jackman – shorn of the rugged charm he is often famed for – with arguably the best role of his career as the driven, temporally-challenged Tomás/Tommy/Tom. Elsewhere, Rachel Weisz excels with the material she is given, and yet her character Izzi feels like something of a half-formed thing next to Jackman. Perhaps that is the point – The Fountain is a film with more questions than it has answers – for her character is spectral, ephemeral, hauntingly beautiful, and comes to epitomise grace, providing a counterbalance to Tomás/Tommy/Tom’s dogged and self-destructing determination.
In a mixed review (two-and-a-half stars out of four) Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers argues that while Aronofsky is trying to “expose his […] raw, romantic heart” he is also “sometimes guilty of creating arty, pretentious psychobabble”. This criticism illuminates a conflict that exists at the heart of Aronofsky’s odyssey through time, space, and the human experience: a battle between form and content. For even a film with high-minded aspirations can be a failure (albeit a nobler one than failed gross-out comedy, for instance) if it is unable to intelligently, or even adequately, communicate its message. As aforementioned, The Fountain is the product of a relatively simple conceit: across three timelines – the palpable present, a possible past, and a potential future – Hugh Jackman’s Tomás/Tommy/Tom searches for the key to immortality in order to save his dying wife. These quests are characterised in the search for the Tree of Life (framed as a novel that Izzi is writing called “The Fountain”), the search for a cure to cancer, and Tom’s eventual victory (if you can call it that) as the final human who learns the value of acceptance as he guides his biospherical space-pod containing the Tree of Life into the blossoming supernova Xibalba.
So, the question that stands is this: does The Fountain deserve a second chance? In a word: yes. Although eight years on it is impossible to argue with Travers that, to some extent, this is still “psychobabble”, it is, however, profound, searching, and challengingly intelligent psychobabble. Aronofsky has concocted a series of sumptuous dreamscapes – just consider the stirring colour motifs of the three timelines and Clint Mansell’s evocative, cyclical score – upon which he flexes his cinematic verve, challenging the potential of Hollywood-produced, A-list-starring filmmaking.
So, yes, it does deserve a second chance. By the film’s brilliant climax Aronofsky is firing on all cylinders as the three timelines align to form a harmonic convergence comprised of the film’s key thematic elements (note the celestial imagery here): Tomás the conquistador drinks from the sap of the Tree of Life and becomes the source of life itself, reiterating the Mayan creation myth proclaimed earlier in the film; Tommy’s failure to save Izzi drives him to not only conquer cancer but also death itself, yet he finally, and gracefully, accepts his wife’s fate by planting a seed at her grave; in his biosphere future Tom is greeted by Izzi’s apparition and he finally welcomes a notion that death might not be the end before entering the supernova just as Izzi’s apparition picks a seed from the Tree of Life, the very same seed that Tommy plants at her grave in the previous timeline. It’s a sublime ending for a truly neglected film; note the symmetry of the seeds, motifs for life, and the power of Tom’s acceptance (after all, his surname Creo roughly translates to “I believe”): the final message remains that it is ultimately death that makes us cherish life and it is that which makes us human.
The Fountain is by no means perfect; Aronofsky is a indulgent filmmaker at the best of times – see this year’s Noah, a film that may need defending before long – and, here, in The Fountain, his hubris does sometimes get the better of him. Pieces of dialogue occasionally feel a little stilted – “death is the road to awe” is one such line that he repeatedly invokes to reaffirm his film’s central thesis and yet it always feels overwritten. For the most part, however, Aronofsky’s reach does not exceed his grasp and to remain constant with the film’s tripartite structure I will imagine three timelines: a past (1968) in which Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey created the potential for explorative, transcendental filmmaking; a present (2006) in which a neglected film divided its audience; and a possible future (2014 onwards) in which that film might receive the affection it rightly deserves.