The Fountain, the saddest movie of the 21st century, is one that we've seen a dozen or so times. It's also not that great of a movie the first dozen or so times you watch it. It begins with a badly-lit scene (on purpose? maybe?) featuring a Spaniard in Central America, fighting some natives at the foot of a Mayan pyramid. His buddies get stabbed to shit, but the natives spare the Spaniard himself, instead forcing him up the impossibly vertical stairs. Convenient. This is what the conquistador wants, and is also the last convenient thing to occur in the entire movie, him scrambling haggard towards whatever is at the top. He has an ornate, important dagger, and the audience has no other details. Inside the pyramid, there's a silhouette of a disgusting motherfucker with a flaming sword. There's something gigantic and beautiful growing behind him far off in the background that we won't see clearly until the very end of the movie.
The disgusting motherfucker stabs the conquistador with a small hidden blade, there's a yell of pain and a flash, and that Spaniard is somehow the Spaniard no longer. The screen smash-cuts to that same conquistador's face yelling -- the acoustics are dampened now though, like those of an enclosed space now, not an airy pyramid's stone corridor -- his pale head is shaved, a vein on his forehead pulses, and he is sitting, floating in a full-lotus position, drifting above an ancient, dead(ish) tree. He calms. He drifts back down into the tree's base. This tree and its roots visibly maintain an opaque sphere that isn't made of glass; perhaps very thick air? It's not explained and it needn't be. We can deduce that the sphere is traveling relatively fast through outer space where the stars are gold and weep tears of godly dust.
This is not good linear story-structure. And we love it. Over the course of the film, we learn to understand that elsewhere, our main characters are a modern couple that are very much in love, living in a house where everything is richly-stained mahogany and expensive ivory and free-standing bathtubs, but the world itself is tinged with that same dreadful, aching, gold-dust aura. Something is irreversibly up. The couple go to very few locations in the movie, yet each bears that same visible scent: their house, a lab, a museum, and eventually, a hospital. The wife is dying of a brain tumor, the husband is a brain surgeon, and as much as he loathes it, he has to neglect the final days of her life to attempt to find a cure, which he is very close to discovering.
Again, though, we flick absent-mindedly between modern times, back to conquistador in 1500s Spain prior to his fight at the pyramid, and also to the far-flung-future, where the space-sphere is found. Now, the couple appear in each of the three stories, playing different characters. The man is the conquistador, the doctor, and the space-man. The woman is the Queen of Spain, the patient, and... wait, what is she in the future? Well, she's the tree.
In the future, she is the vessel for the man, traveling through dead, sad infinite. He keeps telling the tree that they're "going to make it," despite her bark crumbling off, which he does occasionally eat to sustain himself. That's an important and weird detail right there. The tree-sphere is traveling towards a nebula, a dead star -- endless death that the space-man insists he wants to reach with her. As we said before though, these details are presented entirely out of order in the movie itself. There's a lot of him talking to the tree (in space), practicing Tai Chi (in space), and tattooing rings (also in space) around his arm with an eerily-opulent fountain pen, marking how long he's been traveling for. It is clear he's been dicking around on the sphere-ship for a long time, because there's an entire written tattoo language that the man has developed at this point -- big rings, smaller rings, patterns, waving and straight lines, tapped into his inky-skin like an alien code. It's not only painful, he's emotionally hurt that he has to track the passing of time.
We admire a story that gives you a plot twist that doesn't wave at you as it passes by. Here's how it works. As the wife is dying, she's been hand-writing (so sexy) the story of a familiar-seeming conquistador (yes, him) traveling under the queen's orders to Central America to find the Biblical Tree of Life, which contains sap that will grant immortality. This was a big hook -- Genesis stories fascinate the hell out of us. The conquistador in her book is cagey about his obvious love of the queen, yet the two of them identify what must be done in order for him to prove her what he feels. He feels obligated to nut up, she knows she can't stop him, and knows that he'll do this thing, and then he'll stop being so emo, because he'll feel he's earned his keep.
This is the story the wife is writing, but we are left to ourselves to figure out that it's the same story from a different point of view and with cooler costumes. This is the story of what is happening to the dying wife in modern times from her perspective. She knows her husband loves her, and she knows he would die trying to demonstrate that there is nothing he would not do to save her. Near the end, the wife asks her husband to finish the story she's writing. She gives him her nearly-done manuscript and an eerily-opulent fountain pen. He says he doesn't know how it ends, and that he can't be trusted to finish it.
We'll come back to that.
In the future, the darkened space is gradually filling with dying golden light as the sphere moves closer to the nebula -- the dying star. The space-man starts seeing visions of his actual wife from the modern storyline. We wonder, did he actually find a way to seal her soul in a tree and travel into space, or something, and now he's hallucinating? No, of course not, because that would be fucking retarded. The space-man story is how the husband is interpreting these last few days of his wife's life as he struggles to find a cure. It's how he's feeling, a contrast to the wife's version with the queen and the conquistador. In space, in the sphere with the tree, the space-man is alone. He can't go to her for support in this, as a loving husband does. As he sees it, she's all but left him to mark down the seconds to her passing moment. He's been left to literally write the end of his wife's life -- the woman that he loves, that pulls him through all the black shit we go through in the world. And that's how it has to be. There's brilliant dust streaming down the side of his sphere-tree-ship, his wife, that carries him. The craft is inching ever-closer to the dead star, and he doesn't want to go there without her.
To him, the cure for death is her. It's kind of a selfish thought from the husband, like listening to the actual lyrics in a pop music piece. Her being alive keeps him alive, and without her, the ship will collapse. There's a brutal scene where the tree quite visibly tightens, withers, and dies, changing from rich and living to gray and petrified. Then the musical score, which has been boggarting about in the background of every shot, hits its mark, and all you want to do is eat cookies and hug a cat to displace the charcoal-flavored I.E.D. that detonated in your guts. It is the saddest movie of the 21st century, after all.
In the husband's mind, there's nothing left. The tree is dead, the universe will swallow him. But the book. He can finish the book. (He's sort of out of options at that point, now that I think about it -- but maybe he does have a bit of a revelation. The modern husband is the least self-pitying of the three Hims, so in reality, it's logical he'd be the one to power the actions of his other selves.) The wife trusted him to finish the book. In the past, present, and future, hope comes roaring back. His character in all three eras declares that he trusts her. She knows she's going to die, and he finally believes her.
He breaks free from the miasma -- he starts to imagine and he starts to write. He leaves the safety of the tree-sphere in his own meditation bubble (it's in a stunning shot where he ascends the tree, jumps, folds into a cross-legged position, and glides upward and outwards). Elsewhere, the husband changes the book's ending, bringing the conquistador back to life after being stabbed by the disgusting motherfucker with the flaming sword. He passes through the corridor to find the Tree of Life at the back of the pyramid -- we won't spoil what occurs next. In all three instances though, he "dies," is revived, faces and accepts death, and then dies again (eventually, we assume, because we all will). In the greatest moment in the movie, the space-man is absorbed into the singularity at the center of the nebula, the soundtrack erupts, the tree inside the sphere burst into bloom, and we have the epiphany. Or, we did on the twelfth viewing of the damn thing because the first half-dozen times, it's still a mess.
Shortly after that, in the closing moments, we flash back to the first scene where we met the modern couple, having originally been introduced to the other two eras first near the beginning of the movie before encountering the husband and wife.
Something is different. For whatever reason, the scene is altered, the husband chases his wife through the snow instead of going to the lab to try to find a cure, and then the movie ends. There is minimal dialogue, (and we'd check IMDB for the quote, but it doesn't matter and the words are flowing pretty well from memory right now) but in this version, both the man and the woman are spared from their fears of wondering what the other is thinking in those last few days of the wife's life. They trust what will happen, and they trust each other.
The first time watching this movie, we dozed off in the part at the museum where the wife is trying to explain to the husband how the Mayans thought the nebula was their soul-purifying underworld, far off in the heavens. It was the first Blu-Ray movie we'd bought because it was cheap at Best Buy, and we were determined to get our money's worth, so we declared we'd watch the entire thing again. In the second viewing, it made slightly more sense, like the second time you read a draft of a research paper. Scratch that. It was more like reading a book, reading the Cliff Notes, and then re-reading the same book again. There's no more weird new-story odor and the characters are drawn with a heavier ink in your mind's eye. The third time, the order of the scenes was less confusing, but many of them still felt purposeless. We realized later we had it entirely backwards. Every scene has a purpose, it's just that every scene points to another random scene somewhere else in the movie.
If The Fountain was a pasta, it'd be heavy Alfredo with flecks of crushed red pepper, bitter parsley garnish, and chicken so tender that you're not at all surprised when you're told it's not chicken, but some other bizarre fowl that comes from the secluded cliffs of Cyprus or some shit. Either way, you want to know more, just not right now. The plate is deep, weighty, rich, overwhelming, tangled, and probably containing more thought than you realize. It makes you want to sleep, and maybe it's the Chilean wine you've been quaffing with the meal, because it's terribly satisfying to deconstruct its contents. You want to eat it again.
-- Alex Crumb (originally published 2/15/11)