Back in 2006 Darren Aronofsky released a science fiction movie called The Fountain. It starred Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, it had rather intriguing plot and it went absolutely nowhere. Most people haven’t seen it, or forgot that it existed. But guess what? The film deals with pursuit of immortality, so I dug it out and watched it.
When I say the plot is intriguing, I mean it. The movie essentially tells 3 stories that take place in different time periods. One story is about a Spanish conquistador searching for the biblical Tree of Life in Mayan jungles. One is about modern day medical researchers trying to find a cure for cancer, as his wife is slowly dying due to inoperable brain tumor. Finally, one is about a space traveling monk trying to reach the Xibalba – a nebula surrounding a dying star. All of these characters are played by Hugh Jackman, all of their fates are intertwined and all of them share similar goals.
Quite intriguing, isn’t it? What connects these three people? What makes their journeys so similar? How do their paths become intertwined? That’s sort of the central idea of the movie. It is never fully explained, or spelled out for the audience. Aronofsky leaves it open to interpretation. Which is probably one of the reasons why the movie didn’t do that well at the box office. It poses questions, and offers no easy answers. It shows you three distinct but intertwined stories, but never fully reconciles them leaving you to wonder and speculate. Granted, it is not really a mind-fuck movie, it’s more of a contemplative drama with a pinch of science fiction thrown in.
Oh, and it gives us this line (how can you not love this line?):
“Death is just a disease, just like any other… And I will find a cure!”
My sentiments exactly Mr. Jackman. I couldn’t said it better myself.
It is a very decent, but overlooked movie. It gets a lot of flack from both reviewers and casual audiences, but I personally liked it. The topic matter is just right up my alley, the idea is fresh and interesting and the acting is pretty good. What is not to like here.
I also have to mention that I absolutely love the star ship design – it is absolutely brilliant. It is nothing more than a force field containment bubble that encloses some breathable atmosphere and small ecosystem that probably ought to be self sustaining, but it does not look all that healthy. The austere simplicity of this design is exactly the sort of thing you would expect from post-singularity Clark-tech.
Everything else below this line will contain spoilers. So if you want to check the movie out, stop reading now, then come back later for discussion about the ending. Or you can go ahead, keep reading and then watch the movie later and see if your interpretation syncs up with mine.
*** Spoilers Below ***
To keep things simple, lets name our three distinct protagonists Thomas (the Conquistador), Present Tom and Future Tom. The movie establishes quite clearly that Thomas is a fictional character from the novel written by Present Tom’s terminally ill wife Izzy. He looks like Present Tom because he is the one reading the book. He visualizes the protagonist as himself, and the queen (the Conquistador’s love interest) as his wife. That is something we already know, and can all probably agree on.
Who is Future Tom then? Most common interpretation I have seen online suggests that Future Tom is also a fictional character. Izzy asks Present Tom to finish her book, by writing the final chapter. Most people assume that the science fiction sequences are basically that chapter. Tom, being scientist eschews the pseudo historical trappings, and takes the story to it’s final conclusion. Izzy mentioned that while her story starts in Spain, it actually ends at Xibalba – and that’s where the SF twists comes in. He also incorporates the story Izzy told him about her Mayan guides father, who after his death became part of the tree that grew out of his grave, and everything around it. The entire story of Future Tom is therefore a grieving man’s final love letter to his dead wife.
Most people simply can’t wrap their heads around the idea that Present Tom and Future Tom could both be real, and be the same exact person. But it is possible. Why not?
Tom vows to “cure” death, and chances are that he is actually able to make good on that promise. After all, we do live on a cusp of singularity. Chances are that within a decade or two aging is a thing of the past and cancer is more or less cured. So Tom, as well as the rest of the world is now immortal, but he simply cannot imagine spending the rest of eternity without his wife.
I actually had this discussion with an acquittance on Facebook recently. The psychology of the human grieving process is a curious thing, and people who have suffered a tragic loss often have different view on mortality. They no longer fear death, as they view it as means for being reunited with their long lost loved ones in some sort of afterlife. Offer them eternal youth, and they will recoil in horror as this would postpone that happy reunion indefinitely. Whether this is a healthy outlook, I don’t know – I always assumed this is just one of the natural grieving stages, and that time heals all wounds, allowing people to live and love again. But some individuals never actually get out of that funk.
Perhaps our Tom is just such a person. He never gets over the death of Izzy – especially since she died so close to a medical breakthrough that could have helped to save her. At first he loses himself in his work, but eventually his goal is accomplished and death is defeated. So he charters out that little space bubble (we are talking about post-scarcity, post singularity economy here – it’s affordable) and takes Izzy on one last trip into the Xibalba nebula. The tree enclosed in the bubble is the tree that grew on her grave (the one he planted in the final scene of the movie), and the entire trip is essentially an elaborate suicide. He plans to fling himself and Izzy’s remains into the dying star, just as it is about to go nova thinking this is probably how she would want to go.
He does finish her story – but only the final sequence in which Tomas drinks the sap, and becomes a new tree of life is fictional – and it is also his final reflection. He spent centuries defeating death, but that did not bring him any closer to Izzy. So now he is finally embracing death.
In my mind, it works either way. What do you think? Which interpretation do you prefer?