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My Review of 'The Fountain' By Darren Aronofsky

Updated on January 7, 2015

The Fountain, like all films by Darren Aronofsky, is an instant classic for all dedicated students of the art of cinema. The success of the movie spans all aspects of film, and is one that could be analyzed for continuous hours on end without covering all the components. Granting that, this review will focus on the few criteria in the movie that is the most important and impactful to viewers at large. The remarkable success that is The Fountain was made possible by the tremendously unique and creative cinematography techniques, complex symbolism, multiple plot nonlinearity, and breathtaking visual effects.

The Fountain makes use of a series of nonlinear plots that overlap in depth and unsettle the viewer to the right degree as to allow the full impact of the writing to take hold. The film has three overlapping main characters, each of which appears to be a slightly different version of the other two. All three are involved with a remarkably compelling storyline of their own. There is Tomás the conquistador, a Spanish conquistador we see battling a horde of Mayans in a frantic search as ordered by Queen Isabella of Spain to locate the Biblical Tree of Life. Additionally, there is Tom the neuroscientist, who we see at the beginning of the film frantically searching for a cure for his wife's brain tumor. Finally, we are introduced with Tommy the space traveler, a meditative character flying through space in a biosphere that contains an enormous tree.

Aronofsky balances mystery and intrigue perfectly with the introduction of the three storylines of Tom, Tomás, and Tommy. Given the similarity in names and the shared quest to escape death, the viewer is struck with the notion that the three characters are the same in many regards, although have embarked down different paths. As the film progresses, more puzzle pieces manifest themselves and the viewer is blindsided with the epiphany that Tom's wife Izzi has been writing the Tomás and Tommy with the intent to get Tom to understand why he must let her die. This fundamental resolution of intrigue and mystery is an epiphany to the viewers, causing delight to all those who begin to see Aronofsky's poetry unfold before their eyes. This epiphany reaches a maximum once we see the resolution of the Tomás story, in which he encounters the concept of unity and is given eternal life in manner far different than he expected. A similar conclusion is found by Tommy, in which the star he was searching for, Xibalba, goes supernova and the tree inside of the biosphere is reborn. This resolution strikes the viewer with the main theme of the film, and makes the mildly confusing yet intriguing multiple plot nonlinearity all come together unexceptionally well.

The tree of life featured in the film
The tree of life featured in the film

After the smoke clears, the viewer realizes that Izzi is writing the stories of Tomás and Tommy to enforce the movie's central theme about mortality and romance. The stories are her way of letting Tommy know that even though his pain is immense, she will be reborn into nature and that the love they shared together as human beings will never be taken away from them. This message hits home for all viewers with a pulse, as we all deal with death and loss. It is a necessary condition to live as a civilized human, and as such, real empathy runs in extremely high levels for the conclusion of the Tom storyline as he slowly and painfully lets his wife go.

The visual effects of The Fountain reinforce the impact of the unfolding of the plot by employing state of the art macro photography, a close-up photographic technique that aims to make objects seem larger than life. Under the fear that his film would look poor after future advances in computer-generated imagery, Aronofsky decided that he needed specialists in macro photography[1] to create a difficult but effective solution. The team assigned to this task succeeded with something that could be considering as being miles beyond passing with flying colors. A couple recurring effects stand tall with prominence and all add significant meaning to the plots in the film. The first takes place as Tommy is flying through space in a contained biosphere, with a large, beautiful tree that represents the Tree of Life. The viewer sees the sharp contrast with Tommy's pale skin, the green of the massive tree, and the immensity of the dark space surrounding the sphere. The isolation of Tommy, a critical part of his character and expressing his immense motivation in searching for Xibalba, laid in contrast to the effect of the growing of the blackness of space around him encapsulates the viewer in wonder. It makes Tommy more easy to empathize with; that his character is strikingly alone in a intense quest that we know little about until the conclusion of the film. Another major effect takes place when Tomás discovers the Tree of Life after sacrificing the Mayan priest and rapidly consuming sap from the tree, and immediately thereafter adopting a blank stare into the distance. The viewer then experiences the shocking sight of the whole region around Tomás dying and being reborn, literally through his body. This effect allows the central theme of the film to flourish, adding to the crumb trail in the direction of the overall picture.

Additionally, the vast array of symbolism in the film serves as intellectual delight for those that understand the references. There are more than plenty to choose from, spanning science fiction, history, romance, and religion; the movie has more than adequate breadth for the viewer to pick their intellectual poison. In particular, the religious allegory is strong, as Aronofsky is making a secular point with The Fountain, which may prove to be a turn off for many potential viewers. The religious allegory, however, serve a crucial role in the plot and impact of the film. The viewer undergoes various scenes that contain references and recreations of conquistador searches for the Biblical Tree of Life, which immediately rewards those familiar with the historical and religious implications. Additionally, the viewer sees the Mayan priests, and experiences their perspective on the afterlife, tying into the underworld Xibalba, which later Tommy pursues a star of the same name.

The religious allegory is not meant to anger the viewer or bash the opinions of the religious, it is to merely take the viewer through the quest Aronofsky has envisioned. Humans have always have conceptions of the afterlife and different ways to view death, believers of some having strong feelings as to which belief in particular in correct. The atmosphere of being subjected to many different perspectives on how to deal with his wife's death is another element of the film that is easily empathized with. Far too often many of us have encountering unsettling statements or ideas on how to manage or look at the life we are given, particularly on how to deal with the death of loved ones. The allegory serves to encapsulate the viewer in the same environment Tom has presumably encountered, all to build up his quest to find resolution in the answers provided to him by Izzi.

Moreover, the cinematography in The Fountain adds icing onto the cake. Although a majority of the film's cinematography arguably was the macro photography that created the visual effects, many other crucial techniques made the film shine. For example, Aronofsky was intent with filming Tom, Tomás, and Tommy, all as silhouettes at the beginning. As the film progressed, the three characters became more illuminated as they reached the conclusion of their respective stories. This represents not only the progression of their quest, but the viewer's movements towards the enlightenment contained in the film's main theme regarding death and love. In sharp contrast to Tom, the viewer sees Izzi and the Queen Isabella character being fully illuminated throughout the span of the film, which represents her enlightenment and patience with Tom's hopeless quest.

Aronofsky also vehemently used as few cameras as possible, keeping the number to one for as many scenes as possible. [2] This allowed an easy implementation of eyeline match, a cinematographic technique that allows the viewers to see what a particular character in question is seeing. This technique added yet another means of relating with Tom's character, and allowed the viewer to see his progression and confusion through his own eyes.

Utilizing groundbreaking techniques in visual effects, cinematography, nonlinear plot development, and effective symbolism, Darren Aronofsky has an instant classic with The Fountain. The film spans a plethora of film genres and aspects of human life, which allows it to have a truly moving impact on the viewer, one that stays with you for a lifetime. There is no question that The Fountain will become an archetypal case study over the next few decades, attracting all those who have a passion for truly fantastic cinema. I give The Fountain ten stars out of ten, and recommend it to anyone who wants to see a film that truly fulfills the concept of groundbreaking


[1] Silberman, Steve (November 1, 2006). "The Outsider". Wired News.

[2] "Capone and Darren Aronofsky Discuss THE FOUNTAIN!!!". Ain't It Cool News. November 20, 2006.


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