The Fountain

2 Comments
Culture, Visual

I finally got around to watching The Fountain recently — I’ve been waiting for this movie to come out on DVD ever since it was released in theaters last fall. Apparently, it was only running in the local movieplexes for about a week before they decided to push it out for your standard mindless Hollywood comedies and seasonal films.

Spoilers below, you have been warned.

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After waiting a couple of months for the film, it’s kind of inevitable that I was a bit disappointed in it. Still, I’m glad I got around to watching it, and I’m still bitter about the ridiculousness that pushes an ambitious (if flawed) film out of the theaters for your run of the mill tripe.

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One of the problems with this movie is that it’s premise is at once immediately obvious, and yet frustratingly obtuse. Philosophically, the theme of the movie is that death is not something to be feared, it is a natural part of life and continues the cycle of creation in the universe. But, to me, there’s no obvious connection between this philosophical idea and the way the story in the movie is told, via three different timelines, all three of which are tied together by the presence of Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz’s characters.

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Why is this done? Why do we skip from Inquisition era Spain, modern day New York, and some unspecified future? One of the big failings of the movie is that the narrative device here seems largely superfluous. The past timeline, for example, is tied into the story loosely by having it be a story that Rachel Weisz’s character writes — But I believe we’re intended to think that the events in that timeline are real. Are they or aren’t they? It’s never explained.

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Then we have the future timeline, which is actually a continuation of the present timeline, but forwarded at least several hundred, and more likely a thousand or more, years into the future. Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time believing that a character who has lived several hundred, or possibly thousand years would not get over the death of his wife.

I feel that, philosophically, the idea that death should be embraced, if actually internalized by Hugh Jackman’s character, would have led him to bury the memory of his dead wife in his mind. His grief would fade, his emotions would fade, and, in time, the very recollection of her existence would fade. He would not be haunted by her death, but would instead be free to continue to live his life. Despite that, I’m willing to handwave that away, as we could say that the character’s insistence on holding on to his life beyond all natural limits has given him a similarly unnatural persistence of memory and emotional attachment.

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Even ignoring the plausibility issues of having a future timeline so far removed from the present one, but so dependent on fickle emotion, one could argue that it’s the character’s very stubbornness in resisting death that makes the whole narrative of the movie possible — I find it really hard to take away the intended meaning of the film when so much of it hinges on resisting the movie’s message.

In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the movie is self-undermining. Aronofsky is an atheist, so we can assume that in the movie here he is not suggesting that death leads to an afterlife, but rather that the death and dissolution of one creature, one object, will allow something new to be created with its physical remains. Although trivially true, this really doesn’t address the issue of why any particular extant being should sacrifice itself for the creation of something new. The issue is sidestepped in the movie by presenting Jackman’s character in the future as gaunt and hollow, like a man who has spread his vitality thin across too long a life. But I don’t see that as any kind of necessary condition.

Furthermore, the issue of presenting two distinct stories, that of the Conquistador and Isabel, and of the modern characters (and their story as it progresses a thousand years in the future), confuses the issue. Is Aronofsky positing some kind of reincarnation? The past storyline is one that I find particularly problematic because of the presence of a genuine villain character, in this case, the Inquisitor who we discover is threatening to kill Isabel for her heresy. The issue I have with this subplot is that it is the Inquisitor character which both the Conquistador and Isabel are attempting to fight, and yet in terms of philosophy, a pseudo-Gnostic Christianity focused on spiritual matters in opposition to the body, strikes me as not particularly different from the message promoted by the movie. Sure, you can split hairs about doctrinal matters, but it seems to me that in a day-to-day situation you’d have a similar end behavior.

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All in all, I enjoyed the movie, but it wasn’t nearly what I was expecting, nor as good as I was hoping. As I was watching I could definitely enjoy the visuals, which were frequently spectacular (though I wasn’t too thrilled with the aesthetics of the modern storyline, particularly how the actors were made to look). Although I think it’s confused in its message, I found it at least engaging enough to think about it myself and look at where I think its message falls apart. At times I really felt like there were scenes missing, things that I imagine would make this a stronger movie but were cut for time constraints. I’m betting we will see a director’s cut of this movie, and I’m tentatively looking forward to it. No matter how beautiful a movie Aronofsky makes, I don’t think that he’s going to convince me that we should all just accept death and not resist it, but I can still enjoy the movie.

2 Responses

  1. I had pretty much the same reaction. A bit of a disappointment, but an interesting one. My thoughts are here, if you’re interested:

    http://kaedrin.com/weblog/archive/001165.html

  2. Thanks for the link, Mark. I recalled you had written some on The Fountain, but since I hadn’t seen it at the time I forced myself to skip it. Looking over your post — You’re right, we had very similar reactions. I agree with your assessment that I had trouble getting involved with the characters. The whole movie felt very cerebral to me, even though ostensibly it’s a love story.

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