The Fountain Explained

It’s neither a critical or box office success, but Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is the kind of movie that serious film-o-philes will be talking about for years. The title of this article is actually misleading, because no one except perhaps Aronofsky can explain the film. It’s intentionally obtuse, and part of the genius of it is the way every person who sees it will get something completely different from it.

What’s really happening in The Fountain? My interpretation is that the past is the story written by Tom’s wife, and then finished by Tom in the final moments of his life. The present is of course real, and the future is too. It’s a true science fiction movie, Tom uncovers the secret to immortality to late to save his wife, and uses it to stay alive for centuries while looking for a way to resurrect her. Future Tom and Present Tom are the same person, and Past Tom is Izzy’s interpretation of the real Tom’s attempts to cheat death, and when Tom finishes the book he writes the Conquistador’s demise as sign of his acceptance of Izzy’s belief that death should be embraced as a way to become a part of nature and the universe. Tom the Conquistador turns into a hedge. When future Tom is disintegrated in the stuff of stars, he has chosen to abandon his quest to save his life, and instead travels back in time to do over her few remaining days on Earth.

But that’s just my interpretation. There are others. The only way to get a feel what this movie is, is to examine some of the reactions of others. I’ve scoured the web and posted a few of the most interesting ones below.

First up, Chris Null from Chris is one of those people who hated the movie, and if he’d been at Venice I imagine he might have booed. He believes that “…the three men are not really the same person over the 1,000 years. Aronofsky would like us to believe there's a huge mystery to unravel here, but it's not really the case.” All three Toms are completely separate individuals? No wonder he didn’t like the movie.

Harry Knowles over at Aint-It-Cool-News had the exact opposite reaction. He believes that not only are there not three separate Toms, but that two of them don’t even exist. He says, “To me, there is only one reality – the story that takes place here and now. 500 years ago is in Izzi’s book – a fictional book written by a woman that loves her husband and wants him to be her conquistador – questing for his queen to win eternal life and defeat the eventuality of death. What is that future? Izzi asks Tommy to finish the book. To me, that is this man of science’s take on how he would be reunited with her. He would find a way to live forever, till science could take him to that nebula where Izzi believed her soul would go and be waiting for him, and he would be reunited.” I don’t share Harry’s reaction, but his interpretation is certainly a beautiful one.

Groucho at Groucho’s Reviews has only questions. He says, “Are the three timelines an expression of reincarnation? Maybe. Time travel? Of a sort. Or does the whole film take place in the present, as a man struggles to come to terms with his wife's death? She has authored a fiction of the past; is the film's future story merely Tommy's vision of the final destination of his obsession?” I hadn’t considered the possibility of reincarnation being a central theme. Isn’t Aronofsky a hardcore Christian?

Robert W. Butler at the Kansas City Star seems to agree with Harry. He thinks the future is just another part of Izzi’s book. Robert says, “The key to solving this puzzle may rest in the contemporary story, where the dying Izzi has written a manuscript for The Fountain. Part of Izzi’s book takes place in the Mayan empire, and she has left the final chapter unwritten; Tommy is to complete the book after her death. Presumably the conquistador passages and the man-in-a-bubble stuff represent what’s in the book.” For me, that just doesn’t fit. The man in bubble stuff wouldn’t fit in a conquistador book, when Izzi’s ghost tells Tom to “finish it” in the future, she’s telling Tom to finish the book, and Tom finishes the book by having the Conquistador fail. In my mind, the future must be real.

Eric Melin from Scene-Stealers has an interesting take on the nature of the tree in Hugh Jackman’s future bubble. To me, the ending of the film suggested that the tree is one which grew out of Izzy’s grave. But he believes differently. Eric says, “Jackman is a bald journeyman encased in a clear bubble, moving through deep space with the fabled Tree of Life to keep him alive and visions of Weisz (as both women from the past, or perhaps not) as both company and affliction.”

Ultimately though, understanding what’s happening in The Fountain may not even matter. Edward Douglas from Coming Soon says, “The big mystery lies in how the different segments tie together, whether they're real or part of Izzy's novel, and it uses a number of recurring images to blur that distinction. For instance, images of Izzy are often intertwined with that of the Tree of Life, which is a living entity that reacts to touch and sound. Whether the Tree in the future is the same as the one in the past is another mystery, and the viewer's understanding that there isn't just one answer or interpretation will greatly enhance their ability to enjoy the experience. It's not important to completely understand how everything ties together, because it's more about absorbing as much as possible as it washes over you and soaks into your consciousness.”

Edward’s right. You don’t have to understand The Fountain to take something away from it. Arnofsky wants his viewers to question it, to talk about it. He says, “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 and I think that’s always been a goal to try and do something like that.”

A lot of people simply don’t and won’t get it. The answers aren’t all spelled out there for you, and besides, some people only go to the movies for escapism. But great film can be much more than blockbuster fun. The Fountain is the kind of movie that, love it or hate it, will knock around in your head for years to come. What’s your interpretation?

Read’s Review Of The Fountain!

Josh Tyler