Better than Shakespeare. Begins as a mere love story, and evolves far, far beyond that. A tale about loss, and suffering, and redemption, and courage - in the whole register between plain human drama and bona fide spiritual allegory.
The first part of this review is spoiler-free, it's only some plot points that quickly become obvious anyway. But if you haven't seen 'The Fountain', you should stop at the end of the first part, go watch it, and then come back and continue.
Just the facts
Apparently there are three stories intertwined in this movie, separated by what seems like 500 years each. All three threads tell the same basic tale, seen from different angles. These are the starting points:
In the present day, Tom Creo is a brilliant young scientist working to find a cure for cancer - he's played with intensity and depth by Hugh Jackman at the top of his game. His beautiful wife, Izzy, is a writer with an interest in anthropology and ancient cultures, and she's dying of brain cancer - she's played in a more understated way, almost ethereal at times (appropriate in the context) but with no less depth by Rachel Weisz.
In the past, queen Isabel of Spain is facing a great power struggle, her rule being threatened from within by the ascending influence of the Great Inquisitor, who is waging a policy of religious extremism and mortification ("All flesh decays. Death turns all to ash. And thus, death frees every soul."). She has tasked Tomas the conquistador to go to the New World and find the Tree of Life, which will restore the kingdom ("Will you deliver Spain from bondage?") and bring them eternal life.
In what seems to be the future, Tom is travelling in a spaceship that looks like a glass bubble, towards the Orion Nebula - a dying star hidden in its middle - the Xibalba of the ancient Maya belief, the place where the souls go after death, to be reborn and live forever. With him on the ship is a tree, which he hopes will stay alive just long enough to complete the journey. Sometimes he has visions of Izzy and Isabel from the other two timelines.
STOP READING NOW if you haven't seen the movie. Seriously, I'm not going to just SPOIL IT, I will deconstruct the whole thing until there's no surprise left. Just watch it first. I'm writing for those who have seen the movie and are still thinking about the meaning of the multiple stories therein.
"Every shadow is threatened by the morning light"
It's hard not to notice how light is almost like the third main character in the movie. Either in its golden or its white form, it's always around and with Tom and Izzy. The queen invokes it when she lets in the morning light, flooding the palace. Tom ascends towards it in his futuristic spaceship. And Izzy disappears in the brightness of the snowy field more than once, and in more than one way.
The white light is the unknown, the beyond; or, you could say Spirit or Eternity, depending on your beliefs. Izzy is about to merge with it, just on the threshold, and she's always floating in the brightness. She accepts it, unafraid, and invites Tom to share the experience for what little time they still have together. Tom is reluctant to follow, he claims he has work to do - he's still fighting and unwilling to consent to the eventual outcome. She walks through the gate at the research institute into the blinding white outside, at peace, happy, smiling and shining as if everything in the world is perfect - while he is hesitant, torn, in the middle of the dark hallway, thinking, calculating, making decisions.
The golden light is Love, capital L, more like a metaphysical principle, timeless, unbound, not necessarily religious but definitely spiritual - and also very human. Wherever you see the golden light, there Love is in the story. It has the power to transform and elevate this human nature, as you clearly see at the end when all journeys are concluded.
Ultimately, it's one and the same Light, just seen from different perspectives. In a sense, this is yet another way of expressing the main message of the movie, as it will become obvious soon enough.
Through the labyrinth
There are many ways to read this tale, but not all are right.
One of the popular ideas is that all three stories are true, and the movie is about reincarnation and love being reignited life after life in succession - and for a while I thought along the same lines.
But that cannot possibly be true. It is made very clear that the Spain timeline is fiction, the product of Izzy's storytelling and creativity. She literally writes the book, which then Tom reads - and we see it through his eyes. At no point in the movie are we led to believe that she has some kind of supernatural powers, or the ability to remember past existences. The story in Spain and the New World is imaginary, it's how she romanticizes her predicament and Tom's valiant efforts to save her.
And then, out of the three timelines, the one in the present stands apart. The Spain / New World and the future timelines briefly intersect each other, when Tom, floating in the air in the meditation posture, appears in front of the Guardian with the flaming sword and is recognized as the Lord of Xibalba and is given access to the Tree of Life. But the present timeline never intersects the other two.
Sure, you could say that Tom has gained supernatural abilities, including the power to change the past, and returns to the Mayan kingdom to help Tomas the conquistador in his quest. But this is gratuitous, it's not justified by anything else in the whole movie.
There's another possible interpretation. It is tempting to see the movie as a spiritual allegory - the three stories being, in a sense, the different levels of the same experience: the Spain story steeped in the brutish matter as the purely physical realm, the present story as the domain of the mind and intellect, and the future story being spiritual. It's tempting alright, and I was tempted for a while too, but it's not supported by the events - it's actually in the present story that Tom and Izzy coexist in the physical realm, and the future story is mostly memory and nostalgia. It also cheapens the whole thing, makes it theoretical and somehow airy - while the movie actually has a lot of weight and impact and a kind of immediate emotional heft that's not "theoretical" at all. Indeed, it rather hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks if you get too involved in it.
If you're looking for clever spiritual allegories, watch 'The Holy Mountain' by Alejandro Jodorowsky; it's a very fine example of that genre - but 'The Fountain' tells a very different story.
A clue for the meaning of the tale is the music, even. It's not some faux-Indian New Age raga. It's not some ethereal electronic tune floating in the air. It's a haunting piece of violin and cello, played from the heart with great sincerity. It clearly says there's more than meets the eye here, something profound and true and essential. I've seen the movie for the first time more than a decade ago, and I could not forget the main theme, it kept returning occasionally, along with the memory of the story itself.
"Death is the road to awe"
Let's speak plainly: the present timeline is the only true story. The other timelines are imaginary - or, at least, allegories for real events.
Izzy the writer begins a book called 'The Fountain' to work through the difficult transition she is about to make. It's an homage to Tom's gallant spirit when she imagines him as the fearless warrior fighting his way through distant lands in order to win eternal life. So the past timeline is really the present timeline reimagined by Izzy. It also contains the key to Tom's redemption.
But she is unable to complete the story. The last chapter is still unwritten. So she gives the book to Tom. "Finish it". Finish the story after she's gone. And so he does. That's the future timeline - the story of his life after Izzy.
The importance of the ring as a symbol and a clue in this context cannot be overstated.
The queen gives it to the conquistador - "You shall wear it when you find Eden, and when you return, I shall be your Eve". This is Izzy's / Isabel's gift to Tom / Tomas. It's the door that she opens for him, and his path to salvation. Meanwhile, in the present timeline, Tom loses the ring at the lab. He's gradually sinking into darkness and despair, with Eden slowly recessing away from him; eventually Izzy dies and in his darkest hour he grabs the fountain pen, dips it into the ink, and begins tattoing - more like stabbing - the shape of the ring into his finger. And in the future timeline, we find Tom's arm tattooed with rings of various shapes, sizes and textures, all the way up.
"Finish it". And so he does; he doesn't get stuck there, he continues his life. "You shall wear it when you find Eden". He does find Eden, many times over. They're both young when Izzy dies, and he lives a long life afterwards. Perhaps he does discover the cure for old age, or perhaps he doesn't, but it's immaterial - he lives a long life, meets other women, falls in love again, finds dear friends. He finds Eden wherever he goes, living in the golden light - the future timeline is entirely an ascension into the aureate brightness - and his arm bears witness of him, the conquistador, following the golden light to its source.
Not your average love story
This is better than Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet die very dramatically, but pointlessly. It's impressive when you're 15, but it's ultimately a defeat.
This is better than 'Love Story' with Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw. That's a fairly similar tale, down to the medical details and the hospital scenes, but in the older movie there isn't any meaning to it. She dies, and the curtain falls. It all ends in a great pit of despair. Such is the fate of creatures of light bound by matter and time. There, the Great Inquisitor rules the Universe: "Our skin and blood - the iron bars of confinement. But fear not. All flesh decays". And that's that.
The Fountain has the courage to look at the whole thing from inside, at the living experience. It's not Romeo or Juliet proclaiming their feelings in Shakespeare's sonorous language - all on the outside, just dramatic prosody. It's not the old 'Love Story' movie, born in an age when it was fashionable to be cool and skeptical - and the result is a narrative that believes in an empty nothing and ends in a dark nowhere.
The Fountain tells the story from the heart of things - and people. It has the audacity to stare the golden light in the face - that solar fire - even when it has the power to cut you to pieces when it comes to you in the shape of the flaming sword of the Guardian at the Tree of Life. It burns you and it cuts you, and it purifies and redeems you, beyond and through loss, regret and nostalgia. "All these years, all these memories, there was you. You pull me through time" says Tom. It's not really Izzy that does that, of course, not personally. Simply through her brief existence, she opened the door, letting in the golden flood that pulls him forever up, from Eden to another Eden, through space and time towards the star in the heart of Xibalba.
Ultimately, it's not a love story, but rather a story about Love, capital L, beyond the merely romantic side. It would be a mistake to limit it to the romantic register only, though that's included too, along with everything else, because in the movie this is clearly something timeless, almost transcendental - it spans the whole vertical from earth all the way up to heaven. Seeing how the cinematography embodies it in those rich, sweeping golden hues that embrace the whole Cosmos, it takes on an almost metaphysical dimension, and you're reminded of those who have spoken of Love as the redeemer - from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, to the Sermon on the Mount, to countless bodhisattvas, to Meister Eckhart and many others.
Because that's exactly what happens. Tom doesn't surrender and die like Romeo, doesn't fall into the dark pit like Ryan O'Neal's character. Doesn't shrink back from it. He embraces it, the whole experience and pain and loss and suffering. And love. He takes the whole thing in, and is transformed and redeemed and carried by it. "You pull me through time".
At the end, it's his turn. After Izzy merged into the white unknown (the way he saw it) many years before, at the end of his journey he merges into the golden brightness - which was with him all along. "Death as an act of creation" says Izzy. True. And redemption. And awe. And the dissolution of all shadows. At the end, just like her, he's ready. "Together we will live forever".
In the heart of the cosmic structure, he rises into the golden star.
Tom Creo: I'm going to die.
Tom Creo: I'm going to die!
[he smiles, laughing]
Izzi: Together we will live forever.
[sheds a tear]
Tom Creo: Forever.
Izzi: [as Queen Isabella] Forever.
Tom Creo: [walks back to the tree] Forever.
[looks at it]
Tom Creo: We will live forever.
Izzi: [as Izzi] Finish it.
Tom Creo: OK.