Looking at Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain

Science fiction is a messy genre. Much like comics, its become hemmed in by the public as escapist fare. When you think sci-fi images of Star Wars, Star Trek, and convention centers full of awkward costumed pubescent males come to mind. The Hollywood studios seem to be stuck in that mindset as well putting out pastiches of the previously mentioned franchises. For the well-read science fiction fan, its easy to tell the space opera/blockbuster is merely one sub-genre of science fiction. There’s some very profound philosophical and metaphysical sci-fi out there as well and it seems to have not gotten its due. Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is a great example of something following in the footsteps of writers like Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury and a definite successor to Kubrick’s 2001. Despite these roots, The Fountain was not well-received by the audiences and many of the critics.

The problem with The Fountain is that it’s going back to a style of filmmaking that modern audiences aren’t used to, and are in fact trained not to understand. Now, this could easily turn into me railing against what I see as the dumbing down of audiences but I’m going to try and take a more positive outlook about it. The Fountain is a film that demands multiple viewings. And why is that such a bad thing really? The motivation for most studio-produced films (even the Oscar bait material) is to be as easily consumed as possible. It makes business sense as you don’t want to alienate your audience, but I think there is an important place for films that should be examined, not merely consumed. The label of “pretentious” has been slapped on this film and I really think its undeserved. It’s no more pretentious than any other special effects laden film. I feel that the term pretentious has become negative short-hand for “convoluted”. This complexity is a welcome change in my opinion to the more obvious style of film making seen in works like Crash or whatever movie is being touted as the next Oscar winner. I believe art should challenge you, should force you to contemplate. It should not just be, but demand that you bring something to it, you must give something in exchange for the contemplation of the piece, not just your $8 for the ticket.

So what is going on in The Fountain. There are clues sprinkled throughout the film to decipher the three stories. There are obvious places where they intertwine and then other points that are a little more hidden. The film tells us in a very straightforward way that the Spanish/Tomas story is merely a fiction. We see this when Tom reads from the novel, The Fountain that Izzy has written him. What Izzy is doing is writing about her husband’s obsession with trying to save her. He looks for some miracle to keep her alive. The future story comes next where an unnamed man (who appears to be Tom and has memories of Izzy) floats through space in a bubble containing him and a dying tree. The man could easily be seen as what happens to Tom. He plants a seed at Izzy’s grave and ascends into space to take her to the dying galaxy and allow her to be reborn when it explods. However, in the finale as the three stories intertwine there’s an interesting moment. Future Tom and Tomas appear in each other’s stories for a brief moment, future Tom at the very moment where Izzy stopped writing her novel.

Now, we know that Tomas’ story is fiction. There was never an effort to show that in researching the story Izzy found some account of a conquistador’s search. She refers to Tom as “my conquistador” so I think its pretty solid that the story is metaphor about she and Tom. This means the future bubble story is a fiction. It is Tom’s continuation of the novel after Izzy died. The future Tom appears in the Tomas story at the very moment Izzy left off signaling the shift. We see Tomas find the tree and he’s consumed by it which is pretty direct metaphor to Tom’s obsession with finding the cure. The most important scene for me is the way the Tomas/future Tom story ends and how it juxtaposes with Tom’s story. The ending of the fiction is this wild, elaborate explosive ending, while Tom’s ending is quiet and subdued. I see this as commenting on the way fiction works in opposition to actual life. In fiction we can have definite endings while in life there is no clear cut ending.

I think The Fountain is a film, that given time, will be appreciated much more. Its the same feeling I have about Spielberg’s A.I. These are both films that aren’t playing the same notes as the majority of science fiction. They are delving into more metaphysical waters and while they aren’t perfect they are pleading with us to think about some important things. They ask us questions about some very primal human aspects such as love and pain and how humanity continues on in the face of pain. So, if you felt lukewarm to The Fountain the first time you saw it, I encourage you to return to it and view it with some awareness of the way the story is working underneath things.

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~ by Seth on September 17, 2007.

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