November 25, 2006 -- “The Fountain” is the most ambitious film I've seen in a long time, and one of the most beautiful to watch, too. It attempts to explain the meaning of life and death. This message is probably going to be lost on most people. I saw film critic Richard Roeper defeated by it on his television show today, but I knew he wasn't going to be able to figure out “The Fountain” when he couldn't even grasp the simple time travel ideas put forth in “Deja Vu.” The ideas presented in “The Fountain” are very familiar to Buddhists and those of us who have followed the writings of philosopher Joseph Campbell, and the many others who have followed similar spiritual journeys.
The structure of the film folds back upon itself like a mobeus strip, the beginning and ending of the story are the same, merging together at both the end and beginning of the film. Although the film takes place in three different time periods, spanning centuries into the past and future, it is really about just two people who exist in the present, Tommy Creo (played by Hugh Jackman of “The Prestige”) and his wife, Izzy (Rachel Weisz of “The Constant Gardener”). This is the point that eludes most viewers of the movie, who are unable to see that these three stories are all peopled by the same two characters. It is really all one story, not three separate stories. At the center of everything in the film is the deep love that exists eternally between Tommy and Izzy.
Izzy is dying and Tommy, a medical researcher, is desperately trying to find a way to save her life. In a flash of inspiration, he combines a drug with an extract of a tree from South America and comes up with an organic compound which reverses the aging process. He is unable to save Izzy, however. Izzy calmly accepts her death, realizing that it is a part of the great circle of life. In a wonderfully illuminating story, she tells Tommy a story of a man buried in a field. A tree grew out of his grave. She explains the cycle of life through the story of the man's body becoming a part of the tree, and a part of the birds that eat the fruit of the tree and so on. She writes a book which has a similar message. The book, which comprises one-third of the movie, is about a conquistador searching for the Tree of Life in South America. The conquistador, Tomas (also played by Hugh Jackman) is also seeking eternal life. In doing so, however, he ultimately fails in his mission because he fails understand the nature of death and rebirth, even though he experiences these things.
Tommy, using his research, angrily conquers death (believing it to be his enemy) and lives far into the future, where another third of the film takes place. Still spiritually empty, he journeys far beyond Earth to the great nebula in Orion (a nebula once shown to him by Izzy), a place called Xibalba by the Mayans, who considered it to be a place of death and rebirth. Legend has it that he will be reunited with his long lost love, Izzy, when a star explodes in the nebula. He takes the tree of life with him, the same tree that gave him immortality. Even though he has lived hundreds of years, the truth grasped by Izzy still eludes him. But here, at the beginning and end of all things, he finally understands the point of his wife's book and he accepts his own death. In a dazzling scene, he assumes the lotus position and achieves “Buddha Consciousness.” Outside of space and time, Tommy's mind exists not only in the great nebula of Orion, but simultaneously with Tomas hundreds of years earlier, and with his wife during her brief time on earth. He at last understands her message, “finish it” and becomes one with the universe at last. He at last understands that his previous quest for eternal life has been misdirected.
The film achieves many stunningly beautiful images, some bursting with light. One memorable scene has Tomas walking through a dark room lit with many hanging lamps. The same room is later filled with light, illuminating Queen Isabel of Spain (played by Rachel Weisz). Tomas is in love with Isabel, and it is on her behalf that he seeks the Tree of Life (based loosely on the Biblical story of Genesis).
In addition to using Christian and Buddhist religious ideas, the film also uses some ideas about similarities between life on the microscopic scale and life on a much larger scale. In one scene Tommy looks at a microscopic image of an organic compound and visualizes its union with another compound. Later, we see the same kind of image used for the great nebula in Orion. In fact, the image of the nebula in the movie was actually made from a postage stamp-sized image of chemical compounds. This goes along with the idea that whole worlds could exist on sub-microscopic levels, and that our whole solar system is actually sub-microscopic in relation to the universe.
The great nebula in Orion is a place where new stars are being formed out of the debris of dead stars. This relates to the fact that we are all made of materials cast off by dead stars. Like us, stars are born, grow old, and die. After their death explosion, however, planets, life and new stars are born of the material left behind by dead stars. All this is taking place in the great nebula of Orion. A wedding ring is another symbol used frequently in the film. Tomas is given a ring by Isabel to inspire him on his quest. Tommy loses his wedding ring in his quest for eternal life, but finds it again when he achieves Buddha Consciousness. The ring, which has no beginning or end, is a symbol of eternity or infinity.
The structure of the film suggests an evolution in religious ideas, starting with Christianity in the time of the conquistadors (and the Spanish Inquisition), mingling with Mayan beliefs, and ending up with a Buddhist idea of non-ego consciousness. The philosopher Joseph Campbell argued that all religions have certain common core beliefs. Scientific studies have found that in their deepest meditative states, both Eastern and Western religious believers arrive at the same mental place, a place which seems to exist outside of space and time, where one's ego seems to disappear and the believer seemingly achieves a singularity with the source of all being. Although one can certainly argue “The Fountain” depicts a kind of religious evolution, it can also be argued that it depicts a nexus, a conjunction of various religious traditions at the point where they converge and merge.
This film can be understood on multiple levels, and can be misunderstood on multiple levels. It certainly helps one's understanding of the film if you are versed in more than one religious tradition, if you are familiar with the works of philosophers such as Joseph Campbell or Dr. Wayne Dyer, or other similar philosophers. It also helps if you know some astronomy, some chemistry and biology. It also helps if you are a seeker of truths beyond those which you may currently embrace. It helps if you believe that human beings are vastly more similar than they are different. It helps if you believe there is a connection between everything, that things are not as separate as some people think they are. It helps if you believe our current level of existence is not the only one. It helps if you are a spiritual person. How you approach this film depends a lot on what you believe. As for what I believe. I believe this film rates an A.
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