In case anyone ever heard about this movie but was afraid to watch it because it didn’t make any sense…consider this a spoiler-free guide.
‘The Fountain‘ is one of those weird, profound movies that people tend not to like because they don’t understand what the heck is going on. Nevertheless, the film also happens to be an impressive work of art. It’s not only inspiring, but also makes sense if you know what to look for.
First of all, the general description of this film (as seen on Wikipedia, Amazon, etc.) is wrong. They say the movie is about three men who live in the year 1500, 2000, and 2500 AD. It’s not.
‘The Fountain’ is about one man. And not three reincarnations of one man, either. These are three facets of the same man: himself as he is (normal guy), his inner self (bald space-guy), and himself as a fictional character (the conquistador). All three facets are played by Hugh Jackman.
The plot: a man’s beautiful young wife is diagnosed with cancer. He, being a brilliant scientist, sets out to find a cure and save her life. However, his wife eventually overcomes her fear of death, accepts her fate, and wishes only to spend what little time she has left with him. He, however, is so obsessed with his research that he no longer has time to spare for her.
Outwardly, the scientist is entirely concerned with his wife’s well-being; his whole existence revolves around saving her. Inwardly, however, it is shown that he has grown obsessed with defeating death itself. His inner persona (bald space-guy) actively dotes on the tree – the symbol of eternal life – and is terrified of losing it. He’s not just grieving; he’s become afraid of his own mortality. The thought of his wife pains him, and at times she appears more like a haunting specter than his true love.
His wife, desperate to make him understand what is happening, writes a story. In it, the Queen of Spain is hounded by the Inquisition. She has become enamored with the idea of the Tree of Life from Genesis, believed to be hidden somewhere in the New World. She sends her most trusted conquistador to bring back its sap so that they may become immortal and rule forever. The conquistador is very motivated by this, and battles his way through friend and foe alike to find the place where the Tree of Life is hidden.
The three storylines – that is, the three versions of Hugh Jackman – can be confusing unless one keeps in mind what each one represents. Only the scientist is ‘real’. The space-guy is a representation of the scientist’s inner self, which is reacting to thoughts of his wife, the story she wants him to finish, and his desire to defeat death. The conquistador is a fictional dramatization of what has transpired since the scientist’s wife was diagnosed. All three versions of Hugh interact with one-another in ways that would not make sense if one assumed they were separate people, or even separate incarnations of the same person.
As the movie continues, the scientist is unable to accept what has happened to either his wife or himself until he finishes writing the story. By doing so, he realizes what the conquistador’s fate must inevitably be. He realizes that it is the same path he is currently on. And through this, his inner self is able to attain a sort of enlightenment. Immortality is not gained by coveting life (as his inner self was trying to do by consuming the tree). It can only be gained by sacrificing yourself for something else.
Some extra clarification on the film’s jumbled beginning: it starts at the end of the three storylines, when the spaceman is alone and reminiscing over the conquistador’s penultimate chapter. The memory of his wife then prompts him to enter a flashback where he recounts everything that’s happened up till then (and being a weird space-dude, of course he would create memories by tattooing tree-rings on his arms, right?). It is only after reliving these traumatic memories that he’s able to acknowledge his own desires, confront his wife, and compose the story’s final chapter.
And yeah, there’s a lot more detail in this film that I won’t go into; first, because it would take too much time, and second, because I don’t understand all of it. According to Infogalactic, writer and director Darren Aronofsky said: “[The film is] very much like a Rubik’s Cube, where you can solve it in several different ways, but ultimately there’s only one solution at the end.”
I do not know what Mr. Aronofsky’s views on religion actually are (after reading his profile, I’m not sure he knows, either), although he appears to be a Jewish agnostic. His main characters’ ideas on life and death are an agnostic-pagan mishmash of ‘giving one’s body back to the earth’ that fits with the moral of the story, but isn’t too off-putting if you happen not to agree with it. The Grand Inquisitor was portrayed as the villain in the beginning, but the efforts of the rebellious Queen and her Conquistador were foolish and destructive as well. In Spain the Catholic conquistador is seen praying before the Host, which resembles the nebula of the afterlife; in the New World, he prays before a lock of the Queen’s hair instead. He begins as a righteous man, but is seduced by worldly greed.
Though the climax of the film employs pagan imagery, it can easily be interpreted in a Christian light. None of us are meant to live forever…at least not in this world. Only by sacrificing one’s self, abolishing pride, and living solely for love – only by dying, as it is said, in Christ – can we live forever.