The Fountain makes things difficult by being three separate stories. And the lines are blurred between what is real and what isn’t real. To that end, there’s arguments to be made for a very fantastical reading of the film and then a very grounded reading.
I adore Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. It’s one of my all-time favorite films. I get something new from it every time I watch it, and I watch it at least once a year. I’ve listened to Clint Mansell’s score countless times. The film features Aronofsky at his most earnest and operatic, and while the film flopped when it was released ten years ago, it has gone on to gain a cult following.
However, there also seems to be a common misconception with how the film approaches its narrative. It’s a problem that likely began with the film’s trailer:
As you can see from the trailer, it lays out the three narratives as existing in three time periods: 1500, 2000, and 2500. So if you saw the trailer, you would assume that’s how Aronofsky structured his film. While it’s clear that what’s happening in “1500” is Isabel Creo’s (Rachel Weisz) story “The Fountain” about a conquistador who travels to find The Fountain of Youth in order to empower his Queen, and that in the year 2000, Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is a scientist searching to find a cure for his wife’s illness, we’re left to assume that in the year 2500, “Tom Creo” (as he’s referred to in the credits) is now traveling in a spaceship of some kind with the tree that has allowed him to extend his life.
But that’s not actually what’s happening, and the “future” Tom Creo isn’t in the future at all. There’s nothing in the film itself to suggest that the year is 2500 or a future of any kind. In fact, all of the evidence points to something far richer but more complicated: The Tom Creo we see in the bubble is Tommy Creo’s mind.
It’s understandable that some people would think The Fountain is a story that deals with time. Some have even gone so far as to create a “linear” cut that puts the film in “chronological” order. And I get that. If this is a story about The Fountain of Youth, then one would assume that a character who discovered The Fountain in the form of the Tree of Life, would be living in the distant future.
Except The Fountain isn’t about The Fountain of Youth. It’s about death and creation and reconciling the two. The film even takes time to point out how the two are intertwined when Isabel talks about Xibalba:
Izzi: This is an actual Mayan book. It explains the Creation myth. You see that’s first father. He’s the very first human.
Tommy Creo: Hum. Is he dead?
Izzi: He sacrificed himself to make the world.
Izzi: That’s the tree of life bursting out of his stomach.
Tommy Creo: Hey, come.
Izzi: Listen. His body became the trees’ roots. They spread and formed the earth. His soul became the branches rising up forming the sky. All the remained is first father’s head. His children hung in in the heavens creating Xibalba.
Tommy Creo: Xibalba. The star, eh,
Tommy Creo: Nebula.
Izzi: So what do you think?
Tommy Creo: About?
Izzi: That idea. Death as an act of creation.
The Fountain Movie Ending Explained :
For Tommy, a doctor who has dedicated himself to stopping death, he can’t fathom how death could be an act of creation. After Izzi dies, he angrily tells Dr. Lillian Guzetti (Ellen Burstyn), “Death is a disease, it’s like any other. And there’s a cure. A cure – and I will find it.”
The arc of The Fountain isn’t about a man who found The Fountain of Youth or The Tree of Life, ate its bark, and lived to be over 500 years old so that he could rejuvenate the Tree in a dying star. To assume that the scenes in space bubble are literally happening deprives The Fountain of its central conflict, which is about Tommy accepting death and using that to fuel the creation of finishing Isabel’s novel.
When we see Tom Creo in the bubble interacting with Izzi, they’re not preludes to flashbacks. They’re thoughts interfering in Tom’s mind. For Tom, he can’t finish Isabel’s novel because to do so would be to accept her death. “Finish it,” are the worst words to him because if the novel is unfinished, then Isabel’s work, and by proxy Isabel, lives on. He literally can’t close the book on their relationship even though her dying wish was for him to finish the novel.
The climax of the film is Tom learning to accept death, something he has refused to do throughout the story because it’s too painful. When he finally accepts it, we see Tom Creo interact with Tomas’ storyline in the novel “The Fountain”. That scene isn’t Tom teleporting back in time to reveal himself as “First Father” to the Chieftain. What we’re witnessing is an act of creation. Tommy (in the present day) is finishing the story, and the “future” Tom is his mind penning that creation. He changes Izzi’s ending, which had the Chieftain killing Tomas and instead the Chieftain sacrifices himself in the presence of a figure he believes to be “First Father”.
What Aronofsky is showing us isn’t a guy in the distant future getting hit by an exploding nebula. He’s showing us in the abstract the act of accepting death and how it can lead to creation. Tom is now penning the end of “The Fountain” where Tomas reaches The Tree of Life, greedily drinks its sap to heal his wounds, and then is overwhelmed by the power of the Fountain, and dies in its thrall. Like Isabel’s story, it’s autobiographical. She began it as a tale about a woman hoping that her beloved could save her, but Tommy ends it almost as a mea culpa. For Tommy, Tomas is undone—much like he was—by refusing to accept death and chasing eternal life at his own peril.
Of course, how do you sell that in a 2-minute, 27-second trailer? How do you tell audiences, “Hey, all this cool stuff with bald Hugh Jackman in a bubble going through space? That’s actually an abstract representation of the character’s mind as he learns to accept death and finish his late wife’s novel. Coming soon to a theater near you!” It’s much easier to say, “Yeah, this is just three time periods. Roll with it.”
It was an easy sell that did a disservice to the story Aronofsky was trying to tell. While some may argue that The Fountain romanticizes the ugliness of death, it could also be argued that raging against the inevitable shortens our lives in ways we can’t perceive. Instead of enjoying the first snow with the person we love the most, we push them away because we can’t face the pain their death will bring. For The Fountain, we can only move forward after we’re willing to embrace the end.
29 Things We Learned From Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Fountain’ Commentary
Aronfosky’s commentary for the film validates this belief. He doesn’t breakdown what it all means, but instead chooses to focus on the making-of and the kind of details that make his film grow richer on repeat viewings.
Commentator: Darren Aronofsky (writer-direct0r)
1. Warner Bros. didn’t want an audio commentary for the DVD, for reasons that go unexplained. Due to the lack of enthusiasm, Aronofsky recorded one by himself and put it out online for fans.
2. The film took “six or seven years” to make, but that long period of time trying to get a movie made isn’t new to Aronofsky. As he said, making a movie about God and math in black-and-white doesn’t exactly excite financiers.
3. Aronofsky felt science-fiction had been hijacked by technology and flying cars. He was more interested in psychedelic sci-fi when it came to The Fountain.
4. The shot of future Tom flipping back in his spaceship took four to five years for Aronofsky to perfect. Needless to say, he’s quite proud of it.
5. Aronofsky offered Hugh Jackman the three parts after seeing him in “The Boy from Oz” on Broadway. It was Jackman who recommended Rachel Weisz.
6. They photographed chemical reactions through a microscope for the elements that surround Tom’s ship. Aronofsky wanted to avoid relying on CGI, so he mostly stuck to practical effects.
7. The original script only featured the past and the future.
8. Lillian Gizzeti’s name was inspired by Aronofsky’s grandmother and teacher.
9. Aronofsky saw Tom as a vampire, a character in the shadows.
10. They did take after take of the scene with Izzie in the bathtub. That scene, and the rest of the movie, could’ve been cut so many different ways because of the variety of emotions Jackman and Weisz gave Aronofsky.
11. The spinning shot of the car racing by the camera is connected to the earlier shot of Tom floating by in his space bubble and the later shot of Thomas on his horse. It’s one of the many examples, whether through camerawork or lighting, that Aronofsky connected the past, present, and future.
12. All the science in Tom’s work is based in truth.
13. Aronofsky wrote the character Searle specifically for actor Cliff Curtis.
14. The crew was encouraged to shave their heads to play the monks, because they couldn’t afford enough extras.
15. The idea of the tree of life protected by the Mayans was one of the earliest ideas for the project.
16. The film was shot as a three dimensional “crucifix.” They wanted to create structure in a three dimensional space.
17. An actual neurosurgeon was originally cast in the role of Dr. Alan Lipper, but when he showed up on set he froze and couldn’t act. He was quickly replaced.
18. Aronfosky’s father had a cameo. He also appeared in Pi and Requiem for a Dream.
19. There was an improvised scene between Ellen Burstyn and Weisz that didn’t make the final film. You see a glimpse of it when Tommy comes to the hospital and sees Dr. Lillian Guzetti and Izzie speaking with each other. Ultimately Aronofsky cut it because he wanted to keep the film from Tommy’s perspective.
20. Weisz did the scene where Izzie tells Tommy about how Moses’ father grew into a tree all in one take. “That’s acting, ladies and gentleman,” praised Aronfosky.
21. The shot of the hairs on the tree that raises from Tom’s touch was accomplished by static electricity. Once again, no CGI necessary.
22. The old man in the hospital bed who looks to Tommy is a very personal scene for Aronofsky.
23. The hardest scene to edit was when Tommy walks off during the funeral. Aronofsky was going to cut the “death is a disease” moment, but then he saw how important it was for the film.
24. They realized early on Hugh Jackman is a better stuntmen than most stuntmen.
25. The shot of Tom in zero gravity was accomplished with Jackman shot underwater.
27. The way cinematographer Matty Libatique lit the tree of life wasn’t what Aronofsky expected. Libatique shot it very realistically, which was quite different from how the actual set looked.
28. They made a giant puppet of Jackman’s body for the scene where flowers grow from Thomas’s body.
29. The final film ended up pretty much as written. Since The Fountain could be cut together many different ways, Aronfosky hopes to one day make another version.
Best in Commentary
“Those are all real wounds on Stephen McHattie. He’s that type of actor.”
“All three characters in all three time periods have an inspiration moment.”
“It’s rare you see a man cry on film, especially a man cry over love. It’s a shame that type of sentimentality isn’t represented in film. I think it turns some people off. A lot of women told me they had never seen a man cry like that before and didn’t know how to handle it.”
“I’m getting lost in the action and adventure here. Hold on a second…”
The Fountain is a major work of passion. It’s not like we need Aronofsky to tell us why that is, but he does an adequate job explaining how much The Fountain means to him. Admittedly, there are times where it’s easy to clock out of Aronfosky’s commentary. There’s repetition, silences, and at one point even Aronofsky said, “I’m still here.” When the commentary drags it’s easy to get lost in the movie instead, like Aronofsky often did. This very anecdotal commentary is still worth a listen, though. While it may have benefited from having another participant, diehard fans of The Fountain should hear it if they haven’t already.