15 years ago, Darren Aronofsky pushed science fiction cinema beyond its breaking point
Hugh Jackman is alone in a dark laboratory. Then, all of a sudden, he’s someone else in an almost indescribable new place: a light-flooded tree streaking through the clouds and into the stratosphere.
Fountain is not a plot-driven movie. Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 movie may be his weirdest ever, which says a lot about the guy behind Black Swan, Requiem for a dream, and Mother! Corn Fountain challenges the cinema itself. Despite the sci-fi and fantasy elements, it often feels more like abstract art than anything else.
Much of the movie, including the scene depicted above (and embedded below), is stunning, but much of Fountain feels useless or even forgiving.
The movie critics of the time were also harsh. Fountain has a Rotten tomatoes score of 52% (74 for the audience) with critics calling it “infuriating, shockingly wrong” and “the cinematic equivalent of a progressive rock double album”.
But looking back and knowing the direction of Aronofsky’s career as he went from being a cult indie staple to a Hollywood author, is it worth revisiting the questionable low point in his career? The answer is unfortunately not. here’s why Fountain failed.
Fountain weave together three different stories from different time periods. The first follows a Spanish conquistador’s quest to find the tree of life in the 16th century. The second exists nowadays where a doctor is trying to cure his dying wife. In the third, a space traveler in a glass dome takes care of an old tree in a futuristic setting. Hugh Jackman plays the three main characters.
The “real story” of Fountain is his current account. Dr Thomas Creo is desperate to save his dying wife (Rachel Weisz) by seeking a cure for her brain tumor, using all possible medical means, namely an unapproved compound from a mysterious tree discovered in Guatemala.
Thomas’s wife, Izzi, has made her peace with his impending disappearance, but he’s not ready to accept it. All Izzi wants is to be with her husband during his last days, but Thomas is often so engrossed in his research to save his wife that he neglects to spend time with her.
During his last days, Izzi wrote a novel, Fountain, about the legendary Fountain of Youth. She knows she can’t finish the book and her last request is that Thomas finish it when she’s gone.
Although the film never says so explicitly, it seems clear that the scenes from the 16th-century Conquistador are depictions of Izzi’s novel. However, the third account is much more mysterious.
My own interpretation is that the futuristic plot unfolds inside Thomas’ own head. He imagines himself as a space traveler with the Tree of Life, traveling to the Xibalba nebula where he thinks he will find Izzi. In other words, it is his way of accepting the death of his wife.
It’s a lot of mental leaps to explain the plot though, and most reviews of the film focus on how complicated, confusing, and distracting it is. There are plenty of other compelling films (including Aronofsky’s own work) that prove you can get audiences thinking while telling a cohesive story.
Stories don’t have to be complicated to be deep or to provoke introspection in their audience. A simpler story can do it just as well, if not better. It would give the audience a better chance to actually meditate on these grieving themes rather than having to mentally jump from one bizarre story to another.
Aronofsky had a big theme in mind, but set out to try and make the film more complex than it should be just so he could prove how “artistic” it could be.