Three concurrent stories taking place in the years 1500, 2000, and 2500 respectively, The Fountain is a love story about one man's obsession with death and his attempt to defeat it in three radically different ways.
CGI for the film was done by producing chemical reactions in petri dishes and filmed with macro photography. Instead of spending millions on computer generated effects, the macro photography cost only $140,000. Effects were done by Peter Parks
The Fountain deals with a loving and devoted husband ( Hugh Jackman - Tomas) and his dying wife ( Rachel Weisz - Isabel) interwoven into a tale of conquest (1500's), emotional acceptance of death (present - 2000's), and a path towards enlightenment (2500's). Each time period has a direct relation to the other through the bonds of love between the both of them. The ultimate story being one of death and acceptance. What lengths would a man go through to save the woman that he loves? What barriers would he try to break?
Darren Aronofsky plays with the extremes of light and dark to set the tone of this tale of eternal love. This juxtaposition is pushed to many extremes here, as Aronofsky layers in several philosophical questions; ultimately pitting them against each other in what would seem to be a bitter battle to the death. The reality is that as the story moves towards its end, death is not the true enemy of Tomas, but rather it his rigid black and white view of the world that is. His wife's true acceptance of her death forces him to change the way he sees everything around him, and ultimately changes every part of him.
An Eastern Philosophical Take on Aronofsky's Film
With each successive release that Aronofsky has crafted up to this point, there was always one visual or audio theme that was a central to the feel of the movie itself. In Pi, it was the choice of filming it all in black and white. Numbers played a huge role in this film, but it was the black and white veneer, and the low budget feel to the movie that gave it it's power and believability. Requiem For A Dream focused on repetitive beats intertwined with quick visual cuts that were repeated each time someone inhaled drugs to tell a tale of four separate characters devolving into a disturbing drug addiction. Finally, The Fountain utilizes the juxtaposition of stark light and dark to create a world that is devoid of any middle ground.
Following the battle against death, this concept of whitest light and blackest darkness gives the film further layers than what is readily apparent on the surface. Divided into three acts that are each separated by 500 years, it could be said that Eastern philosophies of life and death permeate every inch of this film. The yin and yang, life and death, intellectual infancy and enlightenment, are all pitted against each other creating a story that goes much further than one man's inability to accept his wife's death. All three time periods have a version of Hugh Jackman's character in them, all in different phases or stages of enlightenment, but in the end they are all inextricably intertwined.
The conquistador in Tomas' wife's story is trying to find the Fountain of Youth. Almost a savage being, this character is completely consumed with this quest given to him by his true love (Isabel). He will submit to the blood lust, and stop at nothing to find this Fountain - going as far as to kill the enlightened Mayan priest. This part of the story is bathed in darkness and blood. It is truly the personification of the Id, acting upon all of man's carnal instincts with no thought or feeling of consequence.
The future vision of Tomas in the far flung future - 500 years - sees a more Buddhist rendition of his character. This tree of life that he is clinging to is beginning to die, itself a representation of his obsession with his earthly connection to his one true love. The superego is well represented here, and with it the the Buddhist idea of obtaining spiritual perfection - true nirvana. Aronofsky bathes this third of the movie in total light - the light of true knowledge - which grows more vibrant and piercing as the movie and Tomas himself begin to explore the ideas of truth and non-earthly possession. As Tomas begins to truly accept his wife's death and her unflinching acceptance of her fate this version of his self begins its own path to enlightenment.
The reality is that all three distinct acts of the movie are intertwined with the one true reality of Hugh Jackman in present day. This part of the movie sees the most "real" version of reality portrayed, but even in this both light and dark are used to subtly highlight the emotional highs and lows. Tomas must go through great depths of pain to truly understand his wife's acceptance of death. To her, she does not see it as this all-encompassing end, rather she sees it as a spiritual growth. Her story, written about the conquistador and his beloved queen mimics the path of emotions that she knows her husband will have to go through to accept her loss.
In the end, all three acts collide together as the conquistador understands that he must kill the enlightened priest, the future vision of Tomas obtains nirvana, and the present reality is seen standing next to her grave against the backdrop of the stark winter snow. The seasonal change representing the end of this cycle, and his acceptance of the lasting nature of his love for her. It is this love, ultimately shown through the warm bathing light, that consumes him wholly.
Theme in The Fountain
While the film itself can be seen in varying ways - one being one greatly influenced by Eastern philosophies - Aronofsky describes the core of the film to be one of a "very simple love story." The fear of death becomes the central theme, underlying every decision that was made with the film. This fear of death, especially at a young age for Isabel, is mimicked in the transition from dark to light, and the black and white palette that is used in the act placed in present day.
Also used is the Genesis story that is common to almost every culture. When writing the script for this movie, Aronofsky was inspired by a trip to Guatemala to research the Mayan culture and philosophies. Even in this different culture, the indigenous tribes had their own stories of their genesis. What was most interesting is that it is the knowledge of death that causes humans to explore the meaning of their own life. Within this love story, human mortality is what makes this love so special, and ultimately it is what makes humans special.
The production of this film took a much different course from the original story that Aronofsky wanted to tell originally. Originally greenlit by Warner Bros. and New Regency in 2002, the film had a budget of $70 million and both Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were attached to the film. Due to script change requests not being met, Pitt left the film 7 weeks before filming was to begin, and the film would eventually cease production. Cate Blanchett would ultimately leave the film as well, putting the film itself in production limbo not to be brought to light until 2005.
This second version of the film, which was made for a much smaller budget of $35 million, was purposely made on a much smaller scale. Going back to the feel of his first two films, the movie was re-envisioned as a "no-budget" film. Both Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz were cast in the two lead roles, ultimately allowing Aronofski's vision of the film to be made.
Critically, The Fountain was met with polarizing opinions. In an early screening at the Venice Film Festival, critics booed the film, with a standing ovation being received the very next night. While some felt cheated at the end of the film, others were genuinely touched by the many layers of meaning that were put into film. In the end, the film did not manage to become profitable, as it was only able to recoup nearly half of the movies $35 million budget. The Newsweek review of the movie described the polarity best, as "its supporters admire the film's beauty and daring; its detractors find it overblown and hokey."
Darren Aronofsky has expressed interest in trying to petition for a Criterion Collection version being released, including extras that were not available in the original releases of the film. He has also expressed interest in combing both theatrical and unused footage to make an alternate version of the movie.