I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen The Fountain. It was my favorite movie for years, and even now, it’s a personal goal to write a story with a similar structure. I love the act of telling without ever telling. I also wrote a paper on this in college, so I have all this wonderful information tucked away in the back of my skull’s meatspace. It’s also one of the few movies that will make you feel good about death; it’s positive to move from one state to the other, and the evil lies in trying to take too much or stay too long.
So what is this movie? Is it a thousand year long romance starting during the autumn days of The Inquisition in Spain culminating in the explosion of a star somewhere in the Orion Nebula? Is it a straightforward mortality tale using meta narrative to illustrate internal states? I can’t say for sure, and I change my mind every time I watch.
Some things seem obvious: obviously the story of the conquistador is the story his wife wrote to come to (excessively beatific) terms with her cancer; obviously Hugh Jackman is furiously trying to fix everything before it’s too late. And that might actually be the end of what’s obvious. We never see him finish writing her story, so everything after the encounter with the angel with the flaming sword is imagined or hallucinatory. His spacecraft could merely be the isolation he’s created in his quest to make his wife healthy again, the heart of which is his own fear of death.
But his wife’s (nearly) final words “death is the road to awe” is clearly the transcendent message of the movie. The bad guy, the one to fear and be suspicious of, is the one who tries to vanquish death. Death is what allows you to see exploding stars and vistas of mist and nebulae.
One thing I noticed (and this is in common with Sunshine, the next movie): the closer Hugh Jackman’s character gets to his goal of the dying star inside the nebula, the more chaotic the movie’s center becomes: his alternate conquistador self dies, his wife dies, the tree dies. But the past ceases being memory only becoming instead as indeterminate and fungible as the future. Moments before death, near the supernatural star-hell of Xibalba, that he’s able to rewrite the past and do what is cosmically right: accept his wife’s death and spend her final moments with her. She still dies, she still descends (death inverts our notions: descent into is actually an ascent into) to Xibalba, he still dies in the explosion of the star, but it becomes an act of beauty and tranquility.
Darren Aronofsky (writer and director) has said of this movie that there is a correct interpretation, and all the clues are there, but it’s never plainly stated.
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