A highly rare film, The Fountain is a singular vision, a spiritual and metaphysical journey crafted in hieroglyphic film language. Of what are we to take literally, when do we engage intellectually? Is it purely an emotional experience, a matter of the heart? Perhaps no, as this film is mildly cold and distant.
Per marketing, The Fountain is an epic story spanning 1000 years, jumping between three timelines: 1500, 2005, and 2500, with a couple reincarnated toward the same doomed fate. Tom and Isabel, whether Tomás and Isabelle or Tommy and Iz, are in love, but her death is at certain, and in another way, his life is at risk.
In practice, some of that is true. Reincarnation is never explicitly mentioned, as the time periods may or not contain these characters. This is not an epic film, and in fact the much reduced Spanish sequences give a perfect scene-setting. Tomás is abandoned by his two fellow warriors, and faces down a line of natives alone, in a small canyon — more like a tunnel. Forward movement is inherent to the scene’s very architecture, and we focus on the single subject.
It’s about Tom, and it’s about this couple. On the scale, we then jump all the way to the top, and say that it’s also about death. The last time ‘death’ as a theme was discussed in a movie was Jacob’s Ladder from 1990, and both films are uncommon and very powerful. If it works for you, it will work. The music will echo through you, and director Aronofsky’s vision will affect you as fully as intended.
Which is part of what makes it a polarizing experience. For some, this is pretentious claptrap. And indeed, there’s a vague self-importance that may come of its elusiveness, a Lynchian contract between creator and audience. An image may appear on-screen, and it seems to exist with or without our receiving it.
The Fountain may be up to interpretation throughout, with symbols and non-linear storytelling, but the end of the story is big and bold and sweeping — and final. The statement is effected, and the film’s approach suddenly comes together as a more lucid creative decision. It may be a confusing movie, but it’s more hesitant to be conclusive about things: coming to terms with death is a personal journey, and no matter where in the universe it takes you, the ending is always the same.