Death is an inevitability. We all are born, we all live, and we all eventually must die. Different people handle it differently, though. There are those who scream against the injustice, those who mourn what was yet undone, those who regret past actions, those who weep bitter tears for others lost, and those who wish to live forever. Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain dares to suggest that all those are fruitless pursuits. That death, as an inevitability and an integral part of the human condition, is something to be cherished, to appreciate as yet another path that all men and women must take. That “death is the road to awe.”
The ideas and themes of the film are difficult to discern at first. It takes a jumbled timeline, multiple parts played by the same actors, and forges connections between all of them through repeated imagery and dialogue. Thing is, it’s not as complicated as everyone seems to make it out to be. The secret is the book, The Fountain, that Izzy Creo (Rachel Weisz) is writing, and that is later finished by her husband, Tommy (Hugh Jackman). The book is the movie. All the conquistador sections are what Izzy wrote, her story based on her trip to South America and her own experiences with her cancer. Upon her death, Tommy takes up her request that he finish it, and that is the zen future sequences, through which he deals with his own reactions to her death and his attempts to forestall hers and later stop it from happening to anyone else. Once viewed through this lens, I feel like the film becomes much easier to follow, though no less powerful and emotional.
The important part though, more than the plot or timelines or anything, is the idea of death and how we approach it. Death is the road to awe, the film says multiple times, and it shows that through its explorations of the various characters reactions to it. Tommy wants to stop it through science, Tomás wants to avoid it through the biblical Tree of Life, and Tom hopes to use the supernova of Xibalba to reverse it. But the connecting tissue is the fear of death that is within them all. The movie itself is about one man’s journey, in three parts, to move from a fear of to an appreciation of death. As Aronofsky describes it, “a movement from darkness into light, from black to white.”
The duality of man’s existence is that while he lives, he knows death is always there, waiting. The biblical Fall of Man in Genesis tells of the Tree of Life & the Tree of Knowledge. Man ate of the tree of knowledge and knows of his own mortality. If he’d eaten of the tree of life, he’s be immortal, and lose what makes us human. We do what we do in all our lives in order to leave a mark, to have some form of idea of ourselves live past us. Art, work, children, all expressions of immortality, that someone somewhere remembers that we, yes this specific person, existed and was on this earth. Izzy, through her experience of knowing her own death was approaching rapidly, found her way to cope through the idea that the experience of death is awe-inspiring. You can approach it in fear, in hatred, in ambivalence, but those are all (pardon the pun) dead ends. Negative experiences. Turning it into a positive experience, a new thing that you must go through, changes your whole outlook and can enable you to go on and meet it in a way that will not be so much a tragedy as a revelation. The other “arc words” of the film are “Together, we can live forever.” And the film also bears these out. The idea that Tommy can only move on once he gets to where Izzy is, that he must keep her in his mind and heart, and that together they truly will live forever.
There is a tradition in some cultures that a person’s soul exists in the world so long as one living person still remembers them. Memory is the strongest thing we have, the living reminder that we are who we are. So long as you remember them, no one ever truly dies. Death is the road to awe, and life is the road to death. It’s what we keep in ourselves along that road that matters.