Pure New Era: A Consideration of The Fountain
I know very few people saw the incredible film that is The Fountain. It went faster than it came. It mystified a lot of people leaving critics roughly split down the middle. Of the people that I do know who saw it, all of them not only loved it, but were touched in some deep and long lasting way. The film was my best picture of last year (in a banner year for movies) and perhaps this decade.
For those of you that missed it, the good news is that film is finally being released on DVD next month.
Recently, I read this article from Creative Screenwriting magazine. While the piece doesn’t really contain spoilers, you also won’t go into the movie with a clean slate for a mindset like I did. If you have a fair sense of the film already, or aren’t worried about a clean slate, give this article a read.
The article for me isn’t just about this movie, but it is a great examination of the kind of writing that I aspire to do in my own craft. To a certain extent, I have been trying to do the sort of “myth-weaving” that films like The Fountain have done. The
spiritual aspect, the rich expression of emotion though profound and multi-layered and atemporal storytelling.
Anyway, enough of my blathering! Consider this…
What would you do to save the person you loved? Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel create a cosmic, metaphysical, and yet extremely intimate story that views the issues of the price of mortality and love through three very different facets, as we follow a man through 16th century Spain, modern day, and 23rd century outer space as he tries to save his lover’s life.
Darren Aronofsky (also directed)
Based on a story by Aronofsky & Ari Handel
In the 16th century, a conquistador (Hugh Jackman) faces off against a deadly Mayan priest as he searches for the Fountain of Youth for his queen, Isabella of Spain (Rachel Weisz). In the 23rd century, a bald Zen figure (Jackman) speeds through the universe in a golden bubble on his way to a dying nebula, talking to a tree. And today, a cancer researcher (Jackman) tries to find the elusive cure that will save the
life of his dying lover Izzy (Weisz), torn between burying himself in his work trying to save her and spending as much time as possible with her in her last weeks on earth. Each storyline has its own drive and obstacles, but all three weave together to form not only a story about the power of love driving people to great heights (and depths of despair), but also to examine the concepts of love and life—what makes them precious, what a man and a woman do to protect them, and when it might be time to let them go…or strive to conquer those last, seemingly insurmountable obstacles for all time. Oh yeah, the space bubble’s pretty amazing, too.
Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel have created an astonishing film, and an amazing story (stories) within that film. Unlike Pi and Requiem for a Dream, there’s no cynicism here, no protective armor in The Fountain
– just heartfelt emotions laid bare, which could be more difficult for
many to bear than Ellen Burstyn’s addiction. Each story is about a man
trying to save his lover from seemingly inevitable death. It’s not wrapped in post-modernism, or kitsch, or any of the tools many writers use to blunt the power of a love story. It’s all about the emotion here, plain and simple. You either buy Aronofsky and Handel’s thesis—that there really is power to love, and that power might just overcome any obstacle, no matter what the century—or you don’t. Personally, I hope you do, because this is a grand, affecting film. It sits on the razor’s edge of mainstream and art house; grandiose and
wide-reaching, but filled with great ideas and emotions. It just adds to the power of the film when you find out (as I did, after watching it) that these ideas came to Aronofsky when both his parents were diagnosed with cancer just after his 30th birthday.
In Jeff Goldsmith’s cover story on The Fountain in the September/October issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Aronofsky talks about cutting the script down to pare the budget from $75 million to $30 million after Brad Pitt dropped out. I have no idea what the old draft was, but I wonder if the film had the same intimacy in the earlier draft. Now there’s a concentration on character and emotion, which larger-budgeted films sometimes forget about when the effects kick in.
The Fountain is a science fiction film, but in the best possible sense of the word. There are no space battles here, no robots or light sabers or big green monsters stomping Tokyo. No, this science fiction is about ideas. The MacGuffin is the tree that will save (in different terms) Queen Isabela’s and Izzy’s life, and that’s science fiction/fantasy. But the pain that cancer researcher Thomas feels when he wants to walk with Izzy in the first snowfall but can’t, because he has to keep driving himself and his research to find a cure for the disease that’s killing her, is all too real. The space traveler tattooing a wedding ring on his finger to remind him of his lost, and possibly now found, love. The conquistador who draws personal strength from a talisman given to him by his queen. The Fountain is grounded in emotion, and how that emotion and belief can carry us through difficult times. And how sometimes, if you never surrender your beliefs and your hope, you can accomplish things that others might see as miracles.
There are also metaphors and themes aplenty running through this film,
but again, woven in with a gentle touch. Writing and creativity, as
represented by both the conquistador story and Izzy’s modern-day tale,
is important. Love, as represented by a ring that each of Jackman’s protagonists carry (even if one is a tattoo). Symbols of the tree, the circle (ring), color, live in each thread. And there’s a progression of spirit, too, from the more animalistic and violent (but not bestial) conquistador to the more mystical space traveler. There is so much packed into The Fountain, but not in a dense way, merely threads that add to the enjoyment should you choose to follow them.
It’s been several months since I’ve seen this film, and it still stays with me. I should say it stays with us, because Creative Screenwriting Magazine‘s publisher Erik Bauer, senior editor Jeff Goldsmith, and I all saw it together. We still talk about the film, its concepts and ideas. And yes, just the pure beauty of it—there are scenes of jaw-dropping splendor in the space traveler story, and the Mayan priest with flaming sword is scary as hell. That’s the thing about great writing: it stays with you. You chew on it, and it feeds your mind and—sometimes if you’re lucky, like this time—your soul.
Few films make an impact to the soul, and even fewer make you want to luxuriate in them again as soon as you finish the first viewing. The Fountain is one of those majestic accomplishments whose stories, themes, emotions, and ideas are varied, powerful, and beautiful – and which gives back much more than it takes. It is, as Erik has said, a masterpiece, and I envy you who are seeing it for the first time.