I recently watched The Fountain, a visually stunning 2007 film starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. Of course, I came into the film having heard mixed reviews, but I came away pleased with the overall message.
First things first, this is definitely not a movie that viewers can fit squarely into a genre (action, drama, comedy, etc.). In fact, I don’t like using genre descriptions in general. The Fountain is premised upon a man’s drive to keep his dying wife alive, but it dwells upon the value of life, the meaning of death, and how to deal with grief. While it forays into Christian and Mayan myth, and into Eastern thought on meditation, the lessons a Christian can take away from the film make it worth viewing.
A note on the plot…
Despite the claim in online synopses that this film is three different stories that parallel each other, I’d posit that these “stories” are all about Tom Creo and that they are not as distinct as summaries make them out to be. They are simply variations of the main plot line.
In the main plot, Hugh Jackman plays Tom Creo, a researcher trying to find a cure for cancer while his wife Izzi, played by Rachel Weisz, is slowly dying of cancer.
As Izzi is dying, she is writing a book she titles The Fountain, and she asks her husband to write the final chapter after her death, which she assumes is imminent. The film cuts to the plotline of Izzi’s book throughout, which is the second “story,” or, as I would argue, the first variation.
In the third “story,” or second variation, viewers enter the mind of Tom Creo. In a mix of Mayan myth and Eastern thought, he is a sort of space traveler journeying through the Mayan realm of the dead (a nebula in space) with a dying tree that clearly represents his wife.
These two subplots are woven neatly into the fabric of Creo’s mission to end death and save his wife, as the morality of and issues within his vision are hashed out in Izzi’s book and in the Mayan realm of the dead.
A few take aways…
First, The Fountain teaches that we are not what we should be. Izzi’s disease is tragic, and Tom Creo’s search for a cure for death would at first glance seem like a noble endeavor. After all, creating a way for people to keep those they love by their sides for eternity would be a blessing, wouldn’t it?
However, before Izzi is very ill, Tom slowly becomes immersed in his work and less with her. Once her illness worsens, viewers see him abandoning his dying wife so he can work on finding a cure, leaving her home alone and in the hospital alone. In his mind, whether the imagery was intentional or not, Tom the space traveler chips of small bits of bark from the tree—just as he chips away at his relationship with his wife in the real world—so he can tattoo himself and engage in meditation. All the while, his mantra is that he’s close and he won’t let her die. Tom’s selfishness in what on the surface looks like nobility becomes more apparent as the film goes on.
Secondly, viewers learn that death is nothing to be feared. Izzi is admirable in her composure. Despite spending so much time alone during what she seems to know are her final days, she continues to love her husband and shows little fear of death. She knows it will be Tom who will struggle the most, because, to paraphrase a line from the film, all he sees is death. In preparation, she writes The Fountain for him, with a Spanish conquistador who seeks the tree of life mentioned in the book of Genesis to save his ailing queen. It is Izzi’s forethought and consideration for her husband that aids him most in handling his grief.
Finally, as Tom deals with his grief, and in his subsequent writing of the final chapter of Izzi’s book, viewers see that only in death can one truly live and love forever. In Tom the space traveler’s world (aka Tom Creo’s mind), the dying tree that he hoped to save…dies. And in death, that tree explodes into perfect bloom and he is with it forever.
In Tom’s chapter of Izzi’s book, The Spanish conquistador does indeed find the tree of life, and he is healed of his battle scars…shortly before the tree’s elixir kills him and he merges with nature. His realization? The queen intended them to live together all along, in death.
Back in the real world, viewers see Tom planting a seed to a tree in Izzi’s grave, a symbol of letting her go. We assume he is confident that he will see her in death, where they will live and love again. These lessons are significant for the Christian, as we have no need to fear death, because we have hope that in death we will be what we should be, perfected, and that we will truly live.