Aronofsky’s The Fountain – an interpretation

Daren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is a movie that divides opinion. During its press screening at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival in September 2006 it was booed; at the public screening the following evening it received a 10 minute standing ovation.

To get an idea of just how divided opinion is, take a look at Rotten Tomatoes, a website that rates movies based on published reviews. Of 181 reviews counted, 91 are pro, 90 are con. With rounding, Rotten Tomatoes gives The Fountain a rating of 50%. Opinion doesn’t get more divided than that.

So, if you’ve already seen the movie, chances are you’ve joined the ranks of those who love it or those who are, frankly, misguided.

Of course, I’m being facetious. A bit.

There’s no discounting the fact that some who don’t like The Fountain simply don’t like this type of movie. Fair enough. In matters of taste there’s no dispute, after all. But having spoken to some who have watched the movie and after reading a number of reviews with very peculiar interpretations of theme and plot, it’s clear that there are also many who simply fail to understand the movie.

Some might argue that this is in fact a failure of the movie itself, that Aronofsky, who wrote and directed it, has failed to realise the themes successfully. I really don’t think this is the case. The problem is not the movie. To a great extent it’s our expectations; expectations of what this movie is about but also what we’ve been conditioned to expect from movies in general. In the first case, the movie’s promo and its tagline – “What if you could live forever?” – do it no justice whatsoever and have left many confused: so, it’s about immortality; time travel; reincarnation…?

As for what we’ve come to expect from movies, Hollywood has much to answer for. What we’re typically served up is the equivalent of fast food, which has its quick fix value for sure, but it’s mostly sugar and not satisfying even in the medium term, let alone the long term. What Aronofsky invites us to with The Fountain is a three course fine dining experience. It’s no wonder that a lot of people have found it a challenge.

In all possible ways The Fountain is a beautiful movie. That’s not a description I use lightly. From Matthew Libatique’s rich cinematography to Clint Mansell’s moody score to Aronofsky’s themes, it is simply stunning. Of course, describing something as beautiful is only marginally more useful that describing it as nice, especially as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, to avoid pointless debate I’ll leave any talk of the movie’s aesthetic qualities at that, and will focus on its thematic content, which is what is so often misunderstood.

Three interwoven strains

There are three interwoven strains to the movie’s narrative: a fantastical past, our present and a science fictional future, with the three periods unified through the recurring characters of Tom/Tomas and Izzi/Isabel. The heart of the movie though is our present in which Dr Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman), a research oncologist, is obsessed with the search for a cure for his wife, Izzi, (Rachel Weisz), who is dying from a brain tumour. In the fantastical past Tomas, a Spanish Conquistador and intimate of Queen Isabel, seeks to save the Queen from the evil machinations of the Grand Inquisitor, who has branded her a heretic. Just to stress the parallel between the fantastical past and the present, Tomas describes the Grand Inquisitor in terms of a tumour that “must be cut out”. His quest takes him to New Spain in search of the fabled Tree of Life. At the far end of the time spectrum, Tom travels through space in an ecospheric starship, haunted by the memory of Izzi, but heading toward enlightenment and rebirth in Xibalba, a golden nebula and also, linking back to Tomas’ quest in New Spain, the Mayan underworld.

So far so good.

Criticism of the movie ranges from “It’s an artsy-fartsy disaster” to marginally more sophisticated critiques of Aronofsky’s use (or misuse) of symbology and mythology. Of Queen Isabel’s reference to the Trees of Knowledge and of Life, one critic complains:

The Queen quotes Genesis, noting that there were two trees in Paradise: The “Tree of Life” and the “Tree of Knowledge.” Except it was really “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:9) It makes a big difference. Neither tree has anything to do with everlasting love.

Now it is indeed the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but as a criticism it misses the point and reveals this critic’s failure to understand the movie’s themes. The movie is not about everlasting love.


Most misunderstanding however has arisen around the interwoven narrative threads. It’s too non-linear for some, making it an “incomprehensible time travel fable”, while others impose simplistic interpretations that only succeed in imposing greater complexity than is actually there:

The story of Tommy and Izzy is linked through reincarnation to the Spanish conquistador Tomas (Jackman) who is also looking for the rumoured treasure of immortality.

Reincarnation? Really? What basis is there for that interpretation? This critic seeks a literal explanation for why Tom/Tomas and Izzi/Isabel appear in the past, present and future threads, and succeeds only in avoiding the obvious.

Sure, there is enough layering and use of symbols and mythology to have endless discussions about the metaphysics of it all, what’s real and what’s imagined, but in the end what’s happening before our eyes is really not that complex and it distracts from what is a fundamentally grounded theme. In the end there is only one “reality” in the timeframe of the movie and it is the very mundane (by which I mean earthly rather than heavenly) story of Tom and Izzi Creo. The Conquistador thread is quite literally a fiction, a story called The Fountain, penned by the dying Izzi. Writing the story is Izzi’s way of coming to terms with her imminent death: in this thread she is the Queen, her life at risk, and Tomas is to be her saviour: the same roles assumed in the present.

Just to drive this point home: the fact that we see the story enacted does not mean that it is real and Tom and Izzi must therefore be reincarnated!

Izzi’s story is however an unfinished tale because through writing it she comes to accept her mortality: confronted by death she achieves enlightenment in the present.

Her gift to her husband is the gift of finishing the tale. Bereaved and grieved he too must work through the idea of death – hers, which he has refused to confront, and his own mortality, which he denies. For Dr Tom Creo “Death is a disease, like any other. And there is a cure. And I will find it.”

The futuristic thread is thus Tom’s conclusion to the story, and his triumph in the end is to accept her death and his own mortality. And with that enlightenment, to be able to live fully in the present.

That, I think, is the key to understanding The Fountain: it is about death and dying, and dealing with both: your own mortality and the terrible death of a loved one.

Article originally published on / 16 October 2007