How do we deal with death? And what if we could somehow transcend mortality and live forever? These philosophical questions frame director Darren Aronofsky's latest mindbender, a sweeping love story about a man desperately laboring to save the woman he loves ... in three different time periods spanning a thousand years.
Tommy is a present-day cancer researcher racing against time to find a cure for his terminally ill wife, Izzi. Even as his work leads him tantalizingly close—he discovers that the bark of a certain tree from Guatemala not only kills cancer but actually reverses the effects of aging—Izzi slips ever closer to succumbing to her malignant brain tumor.
One of the ways Izzi deals with her mortal slide is to write a story, The Fountain, which details the life of Tomas. He is a 16th-century Spanish conquistador (modeled after her husband) who has been tasked by his beloved Queen Isabel to find the biblical tree of life, rumored to exist deep in the Mayan jungles of New Spain (present-day Central America). But the Spanish Grand Inquisitor has deemed the quest heresy, and it's only a matter of time before he deals with the Queen's apostasy ... severely and permanently.
Tom, meanwhile, is a 26th-century astronaut silently gliding toward the Xibalba nebula, which according to an ancient Mayan prophecy is a place of rebirth. His spacecraft? A breathtaking transparent globe. His only other passenger? An ancient, gnarled tree to which Tom speaks tenderly. In time we discover how the tree's life and fate is inextricably linked with Izzi's—and Tom's own understanding of life and death.
Despite this film's intricate, fantastical storyline, its theme is universal: What do we do with the fact that everyone dies? In different ways, both Tommy and Izzi (in each of their respective times and guises) respond positively to the reality of mortality.
As Izzi dies of cancer in the present, she's a model of healthy surrender and relinquishment. She's made peace with her fate, and she's not afraid of that transition. She deeply wants her husband to be able to accept that and enjoy his last days with her.
While not embracing the kind of positivity that Izzi embodies, Tommy is compelled by an admirable passion and yearning for his beloved. For him the possibility of Izzi's death—and, more generally, the fact that anyone has to die at all—is simply unacceptable. And he believes that he has the skills to prolong her life.
One could be churlish and describe Tommy's desire to be in control and to sustain Izzi's life as denial. But it's hard to find fault with a love so deep and so transcendent. [Spoiler Warning] Even he eventually realizes the wisdom of Izzi's open-handed and graceful surrender to that which she cannot control.
His mentor and boss, Dr. Lillian Guzetti, confronts his increasingly reckless professional behavior as he violates protocol in an effort to accelerate his cancer research. She encourages Tommy to spend time with his dying wife instead of investing every waking moment in his work.
The Fountain is a deeply spiritual movie, combining biblical elements and myths from ancient Mayan culture to build a story around the tantalizing possibility of achieving immortality. It opens by quoting Genesis 3:24: "After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life."
From Izzi's "book" we learn that one of Queen Isabel's priests has heard rumors of a tree supposedly granting eternal life located deep in the Mayan jungle. Isabel believes this is none other than the tree described in Genesis. "Salvation," she tells Tomas, "lies in the jungles of New Spain." And she promises him that if he succeeds in his quest for the tree, "I shall be your Eve. Together we will live forever." On his journey, Tomas is shown several times kneeling and praying before a golden scepter.
Besides Isabel's priest, the only other representative of the church we see is the terrible Grand Inquisitor. He labels Isabel a heretic for pursuing immortality on earth. And he believes the flesh merely imprisons the soul, which is fully released into freedom only at death. Needless to say, he's not happy about the quest she's assigned to Tomas, and he's determined to execute the Queen for her beliefs.
Describing a Mayan myth in great detail, The Fountain tells of a creator god called the First Father who gave his life as an act of creation. In his death, all other life came into being. An important, and related, tenet of the Mayan religion is this saying (which is repeated several times): "Death is the road to awe." According to the culture's tradition (as described onscreen), the First Father's head is now in the cosmos, specifically in the nebula of Xibalba, a dying star that is imagined as a place where the dead go to be reborn. (There's no elaboration on whether people are reincarnated as new beings or are renewed as some version of their old selves.)
[Spoiler Warning] The tree of life heals wounds and does grant immortality—but not in the way Tomas, Tommy or Tom would expect. And what happens when it is encountered underscores the Mayan creation myth of new life being created from death. Later in the story's timeline, we see Tom meditating in the lotus position while traveling toward Xibalba with hopes and dreams of reuniting with Izzi. It's implied that his plunge into that fiery light will indeed lead to true eternal life and a reunion with his long-dead wife.
A scene shows Izzi in a bathtub; soap suds shield most of her body. Kneeling beside the tub, a clothed Tommy kisses Izzi, then climbs in with her. The scene doesn't include any explicit nudity, but Izzi does pull off her husband's shirt and rub his torso; they're clearly on the verge of sex (which isn't depicted). Elsewhere, Tommy and Izzi are seen in bed together. He kisses her neck, and we glimpse a portion of her bare back. Izzi is also shown in a cleavage-revealing dress.
Most of the violence in The Fountain takes place during Tomas' expedition into Mayan territory. He kills three mutinous conquistadors and several marauding Mayan warriors with his sword. Tomas' two remaining companions are speared by the Mayans, and later, a Mayan priest stabs Tomas. One warrior, mistaking Tomas for the First Father, offers himself up as a sacrifice. Tomas takes him up on it and kills him. A Catholic priest is also mortally wounded.
Another disturbingly violent scene depicts the Grand Inquisitor flagellating himself with a whip that leaves deep, bloody wounds on his back. Also sadistic, the religious leader then speaks to five or six heretics who're hanging upside down over a pit. They've obviously been tortured; similar whip wounds are visible on their backs, and their shirts are in rags. In this dark (and dimly lit) scene, a woman's breast is very briefly visible before these people are let go and fall to their death. (We hear but do not see the impact.)
In the present, Tommy's desperation and grief propel him toward flailing, violent behavior as Izzi fights for her life. He throws things and slams a doctor against a window. After losing his wedding band, he takes a fountain pen Izzi has given him and uses it to repeatedly puncture the skin on his ring finger, giving himself a tattoo and drawing blood in the process.
Known for his somewhat eccentric and extremely artistic films Requiem for a Dream and Pi, Darren Aronofsky has the capacity to tell stories that make your head spin—while addressing life's deepest questions. In The Fountain he's at it again, intentionally blending elements of biblical teaching with Mayan myth in a story about the longing for eternal life.
But the movie's real inspiration, Aronofsky insists, is neither of those religious stories. Rather, it's the fabled fountain of youth. "The desire to live forever is deep in our culture," he says. "Every day people are looking for ways to extend life or feel younger. Just look at the popularity of shows like Extreme Makeover or Nip/Tuck. People are praying to be young and often denying that death is a part of life. Hospitals spend huge sums of money trying to keep people alive. But we've become so preoccupied with sustaining the physical that we often forget to nurture the spirit. So that's one of the central themes I wanted to deal with in the film: Does death make us human, and if we could live forever, would we lose our humanity?"
The ultimate answer he provides to those questions is this: Death is a part of life, and it cannot be avoided. Over and over again, however, The Fountain also suggests that death is not the end, but rather a gateway to new life. In some ways, this message is very much in sync with Christian beliefs. Jesus' death opens the door to new life for those who place their faith in Him. And He's clear that following Him will require dying to ourselves for His sake and for the sake of others.
But it should be noted that Aronofsky does not look at the realities of life and death from a Christian perspective. Genesis references notwithstanding, The Fountain is a syncretistic mishmash that never addresses core biblical teaching about humanity's sin and our need for a Savior. Instead, it assumes mankind is basically good and that eternal life is something we can achieve on our own. As Tom floats into the brilliant light of Xibalba at the film's end—presumably to die and be reunited with Izzi—what I saw reminded me a lot more of Eastern religions (or the trippy 1968 flick 2001: A Space Odyssey, for that matter) than anything Christianity teaches.
In addition to these overarching worldview questions, it's also worth mentioning again that this film is intense. (It was originally rated R, then downgraded to a PG-13 after a few edits were made right before it hit theaters.) Indeed, for those who might otherwise be inclined to wade into moody and mystical waters, violent imagery, harsh profanity and a sexually suggestive scene may well render The Fountain's confusing spiritual and philosophical meandering moot.