Looking Back: Aronofsky's 'The Fountain' is an Underrated Masterpiece
by Dan Marcus
November 22, 2016
When you think of auteur filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, you probably think of Requiem for a Dream or Black Swan. However, when I think of Darren Aronofsky, I can't help but gravitate toward what I think is his most underrated film: The Fountain, released in 2006. The science fiction love story, starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz playing essentially the same characters over three timelines, was released ten years ago today with little fanfare. The film was blasted by critics and made very little at the box office. However, I fell in love with the film from the moment I gazed my eyes on the first frame ten years ago. Let's explore why I think the film is an underrated masterpiece and one of Aronofsky's best in his filmography.
The road to Aronofsky's fountain of youth story stems far earlier than 2006. The Fountain was a true labor of love for Aronofsky, who first came up with the idea with his co-writer and creative partner Ari Handel around the late 90's. He brokered a deal with Warner Bros to produce the film in 2001, with Brad Pitt attached to star. If you've read the graphic novel version of The Fountain – which is based on Aronofsky's original script that he wrote in the early 00's – then you know the grandiose scope and epic scale Aronofsky intended to tell this intimate story. If you haven't, I recommend you check it out (it's affordably available on Amazon). It's still the same story Aronofsky eventually made, but told much differently. It presents a very interesting alternative scenario where The Fountain could have been a much different film.
Unfortunately for Aronofsky – although, soon to be argued, I believe fortunately for us the audience – Brad Pitt had to drop out of The Fountain in late 2002. If you've seen the behind-the-scenes footage on the film's DVD, it covers some of the production before it was ultimately scrapped. It's refreshingly raw and features the moment Aronofsky had to tell his entire production team that Warner Bros was pulling the plug. It's a tender moment for any filmmaker that has had to struggle with the reality of making films on sometimes shoestring budgets with very little support. There's something very tangible about seeing a filmmaker such as Aronofsky deal with the very same struggles, especially when earlier in the footage you see him and his producing partners in complete awe of the sets that were being built for the film.
Even though Aronofsky had to re-conceptualize his film with a new lead (Jackman), a smaller budget and a truncated script, I would argue these concessions ultimately made for a better film. What The Fountain lacks in Braveheart-esque scope it absolutely makes up for in raw, intimate and incredibly personal drama. The true nature of The Fountain's narrative has been debated ever since the film's release. The film's story finds Tom the neurologist in modern day trying to find a cure to save his dying wife, Izzy (Weisz). Izzy is working on a story, which we must assume is the story of Tomas the conquistador (also played by Jackman) on an epic journey to find the fountain of youth for his queen, Queen Isabella (also played by Weisz). This is all interspersed with a narrative presumably set far in the future, where Tommy the space traveler (again Jackman) is in deep space in a self-contained biosphere on a search for the golden nebula called Xibalba.
Even though the previews and marketing materials (as well as the film itself) may lead you to believe we are following two immortals over three time periods, that's not how I chose to interpret the film. I've always considered the film to be strikingly stripped down and realistic, even given its science fiction/fantasy premise. In my mind, the real story is the one being told in present day. Tom is so obdurate to save his wife's life that he is blinded by resilient determination. He refuses to take a break from work to spend time with Izzy to venture for a walk. He is so self-absorbed in the pursuit to save Izzy's life that nothing else matters, not even spending time with his dying wife. I believe that is the defining reality of the film, giving us a poignant message about accepting our fate and the fragility of our lives.
There's nothing more important than the present, and I believe that is the key message The Fountain is trying to convey. I think the past storyline featuring Tomas and Queen Isabella is the story Izzy is working on. As the film progresses, Izzy says she knows the ending, but won't reveal it to Tom. In one of her final scenes, she tells Tom that she wants him to write the ending to the story… even though he doesn't know it. I think this is an important moment, a moment where Izzy is basically trying to get Tom on-board with the idea of dealing with the grief he will soon discover with her passing. Izzy has already accepted her fate – the ending of her own story. Izzy could tell Tom the ending, but that's not the point. Izzy wants Tom to discover the ending for himself, perhaps one last gift to Tom to give him something to consider as he ends up grieving the loss of the person most special to him in his entire world.
I've been on a lot of forums, seen a lot of video essays and read a lot of editorials which try to analyze and dissect the meaning of The Fountain. I think the beauty of the film is that you can interpret the film any way you want. I also believe that is a testament to a brilliant film, where you can watch it and essentially create your own interpretation of what happened. So, in regards to the narrative featuring Tommy, I believe that was intentionally left vague. I've seen arguments where people think it is real, a future where Tommy found the cure for death and hopes to breathe new life into the tree of life he carries with him in his biosphere bubble. I've heard theories Izzy is a part of that tree of life and that Tommy hopes to bring back Izzy by reaching the center of the nebula. I think these theories are all very valid and speak volumes of the film's storytelling which allows you to make so many different assertions based on what you choose to believe.
For myself, I choose to believe the futuristic narrative is the ending of Izzy's book. Aronofsky luminously crafts a story that feels so tangible and real, focusing on how we deal with grief and how sometimes it can define us, if we let it. I think for most of the film that grief, in its many shapes and forms, has defined Tom as he struggles to accept a reality where his wife is no longer in it. I think the ending is Tom finally accepting that reality by finishing the story as Izzy instructed him to do before her death. In this ending, he has found the cure for death and he has journeyed into the deepest regions of space to find his own acceptance and understanding of what this grief has taught him. It is a metaphorical ending for Tom, Tomas and Tommy. I think anyone looking for a literal explanation of the film is going to be disappointed, as Aronofsky himself refused to confirm or deny any of the film's lingering plot questions during his commentary for the film.
However, you may find one clue in Aronofsky's commentary. In the opening moments, Aronofsky says that he wishes the audience to interpret the story as they see fit – and that is where I find the overarching brilliance of the film. Of course, everyone is going to construe what exactly makes a "good film" differently. We all have different tastes and we all have our own unique way of identifying art. I think what makes The Fountain a masterpiece is the way it allows you, the audience, to interpret the film any way you like. It could be a science fiction story about two immortals over three periods of time. It could be about the quest for the fountain of youth. It could also be one man's struggle to accept the brittleness of life, the imminent reality of death and the grief that comes along with it.
I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the performances, visuals and the musical score for the film. I've always been a fan of Hugh Jackman, from his time as Logan/Wolverine in the X-Men movies to his great performances in Les Misérables, Prisoners, The Prestige and so many others. I think his performance in The Fountain may be a favorite of mine. There's such a visceral, heartbreaking rawness to his performance. You believe his determination to save his wife. You believe he would spend every waking moment trying to find a cure, including going as far as venturing to the outer reaches of space to bring her back.
You also believe he loves his wife with every iota of his being, whether how he looks at her when she's not watching or how he is consumed by inconsolable rage when she passes. There's not a moment of falseness in Jackman's performance. There is a scene, no matter how many times I've seen it, where I lose it every time: the moment where Tom remembers he lost his wedding ring and tattoos the outline of the ring on his finger. It's absolutely devastating and Jackman sells that moment unlike anything I've seen him do in any other movie he's ever done.
Rachel Weisz is also exquisite in the film. Weisz's Izzy has the burden of already knowing her fate, having accepted it presumably a while before the film's narrative begins. Weisz's Izzy must be strong for Tom, knowing how hard this will ultimately be on him. Weisz's performance is brave, resolute, but also sadly bittersweet. In her last scene with Jackman – at least chronologically in the primary present-day storyline – Weisz brings a soft, quiet understanding to Izzy that makes you resonate with her and respect her all at once for her strength and courage. It's a beautiful performance.
The stunning performances of the film are also assisted by gorgeous visuals, thanks to cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Aronofsky and Libatique are frequent collaborators and that developed working relationship shines in The Fountain with some of the best work of their careers. What impresses me most about the visuals of The Fountain is how Aronofsky and Libatique realized the space scenes. Unlike most science fiction films dealing with outer space, Aronofsky eschewed computer generated visual effects. To create the visuals of the biospheric ship, Aronofsky and his team opted for macro photography and digital mattes, emphasizing image enhancement and set extensions. The end results are images created with very little computer graphics, leaving you the viewer with an other-worldly aesthetic that is both stunningly gorgeous and strikingly unique. I honestly can't say I've seen a science fiction film that looks as vividly arresting and original as the outer space scenes do in The Fountain.
The performances and visuals were also accentuated by Clint Mansell's score. I don't even know where to begin describing Mansell's score. To be upfront, I consider myself to be a considerable film score fan. I've been lost in the world of film scores ever since I was a kid. The score for The Fountain was one of the first original soundtrack albums I've ever purchased. Mansell's work is honestly one of the best film scores in at least a decade – and I don't mean that as hyperbole, either. Mansell completely elevates the material, adding so much richness, emotion and feeling to what was already an emotionally overwhelming experience. "Death is the Road to Awe" is transcendent, a stirring piece of music that completely overwhelms you and takes you to another place entirely. The score and the visuals alone make The Fountain a masterpiece for me.
That's the grand beauty of The Fountain, though. I'm sure to a lot of different people the film goes over their heads, or it is considered too pretentious to truly be enjoyed. I would argue you don't need to understand the film to enjoy it. While this might be an egregious analogy, many people don't understand 2001: A Space Odyssey either and I don't believe that film is meant to be completely understood as well. Honestly, some films aren't meant to be understood on an intellectual or even thematic level. Some films are meant to be experienced and meant to be felt. That may very well come off as pretentious, but for me Aronofsky's The Fountain is an immeasurably emotional experience that has left an indelible impact on me ten years later. It's a film I proudly call a masterpiece. Do you agree? Do you think The Fountain is underrated?