You’re reckless and you’re losing perspective.
— Lilly (Ellen Burstyn)
Elaborately plotted across time and space, The Fountain follows an undying love over 1000 years and in various incarnations. Or rather, it’s the examination of human spirituality and salvation. Then again, it’s the study of links between creation and destruction, innovation and imperialism.
The Fountain, something of a companion piece to director Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, is all these things and less. Ambitious and emphatic, it revisits the earlier film’s major themes, as desire and addiction lead to pleasure and pain. But it also oddly reductive, framing its grand concepts in terms familiar and “universal.” It’s possible that such reduction is a function of the film’s decrease in scale: following an initial pass that had Brad Pitt attached, the project was subsequently scaled back by many millions of dollars. This included a change in cast, such that the irrepressible Hugh Jackman and luminous Rachel Weisz took on the multiple central roles.
These roles go like this: in 2006, a scientist, Tommy Creo (Jackman) and his wife Izzi (Weisz) struggle with the fact of her brain cancer. As his last name suggests, Tommy seeks knowledge, in particular scientific, in hopes that this will solve the problem. “Death is a disease,” he proclaims, and he means to find the cure. That is, he wants desperately to keep Izzi with him “always,” romantically and figuratively, and to that end, he spends endless hours in the lab, operating on monkeys’ brains, hoping to find an answer to aging. Izzi, a historian and writer, has come to terms with her imminent death, approaching it with what her friend and Tommy’s boss Lilly (Ellen Burstyn) calls “grace.” But Tommy continues to work furiously, going so far as to refuse her request that he join her on a walk in the afternoon snow, a request that he comes to regret and the movie replays, again and again.
Repetition, rather than a more usual straight-ahead narrative, shapes The Fountain. Its plot and score (by Clint Mansell) are persistent and insistent, driving not forward but in circles. Just so, Tommy’s earnest efforts to save his wife are mirrored in the film’s two other stories. During the 16th century, a conquistador named Tomas (also played by Jackman) seeks the Fountain of Youth at the behest of Isabella (Weisz), Spanish Queen. Embodying ideology as well as nation, “Spain,” as she calls herself, bids her adventurer to go to Central America, to plunder a Mayan temple in search of life. “Spain has a plan,” she says, “there is hope.” She intends to thwart the devastating violence at that moment enacted by Grand Inquisitor Silecio (Stephen McHattie), who oversees the torture of heretics, insisting that “our bodies are prisons for our souls.” She seeks a way forward without abuse, without fear. Like Izzi, Isabella represents wisdom beyond manly exploits.
If Silecio’s methods are manifestly cruel, his driving notion is related to Tomas’ (and Tommy’s) desire to find a way beyond the flesh that must end, into existence that last forever. Tomas locates the temple, where he encounters a guardian with a flaming sword, as well as his own doubts. The episode parallels Izzi’s story – which she writes in perfect longhand, in a manuscript she hands off to Tommy, telling him to “finish it.” She looks to the legend of a “dying star” named Xibalba that represented rebirth for ancient Mayans.
This idea is repeated in the film’s third section (all are intercut, the film becoming increasingly circular in structure, with images of doorways leading to windows leading to globe leading to deep, black space). Here Tom, a 26th-century explorer, is drawn to a beatific specter of Izzi, but also trying to manage her appearances to him, as if he might manage time, “What are you doing here?” he asks when she repeats the 21st century Izzi’s request that he accompany her “on a walk.” Again, he’s distracted, mashing up potions (healing or transportive), tattooing notes on his own arm.
The trees of life and of knowledge appear more than once, the bark alive and pulsing. As Tomas carves into one, its sap changes him, unites him with all life; as Tom embraces another, it responds sensually, a downy surface hair responding to his electric touch, his yearning breath. This image repeats a close-up of Tommy’s breath on Izzi’s neck, her delicate down reaching to meet his breath of desire. So close, he means to “finish it” — the book, the cure, the desire — but he can’t, at least not in a way he can comprehend. The very concept of “finishing” gives way to cycles and renewals. As if to illustrate, Tom’s spaceship is a sphere, by which he shoots up into endless space, toward Xibalba.
The literalness of such images are troubling, dragging metaphors from Judeo-Christian, Mayan, and Buddhist traditions into digital solidity. As gallant and selfless as Tommy’s longing may seem, he is, in the end, another compassionate, courageous, and heroic white male, a repetition all too common. Tomas is identified by the Mayan guardian as the “First Father,” before he’s dispatched into discovery beyond death — precisely, again, lotus-positioned, glowing, soaring.
The Fountain‘s return to such conventional imagery pulls its prodigious aspirations back into a visible realm. In seeking connections across cultures, moments, and beliefs, the film tends to forget differences within particular, if repetitive, social and political hierarchies. “All flesh decays,” pronounces Silecio. And so, flesh seeks respite, whether in passionate embrace or desperate conviction or faith in an ever-after, in a love that won’t end. Tommy finds himself in his determination to conquer Izzi’s cancer. But as her story — her book, her handwriting, her voiceover — becomes his, it also becomes familiar. She’s both his end and his means, and so, at last, not quite herself.