December 10, 2006

Aronofsky's pro-death 'Fountain'

I'm somewhat of a film buff, particularly sci-fi, so when it comes time to watch an eagerly anticipated movie it's often difficult for me to leave my emotional baggage and lofty expectations at the door. Darren Aronofsky's latest film, The Fountain, is a good case in point. I was totally expecting to love this movie, but instead now find myself forced to write a very negative review.

Considering the subject matter -- namely radical life extension and immortality -- The Fountain had oodles of potential. But as is so often the case these days, rather than critically re-examine and re-consider long-held convictions, Aronofsky chose to create a visually stunning vehicle that perpetuates long-standing myths and misconceptions about death and the quest for extended life.

**Note: this review contains spoilers.

To unravel the morality behind immortality, Aronofsky explored three unique settings: the past, the present and the future.

He used Inquisition era Spain and South America to represent the historic quest for immorality (think Indiana Jones as Ponce de Leon among the Mayans) and to provide an analogy for the relationship between the two main protagonists from a different narrative. In my mind, this was one of the more compelling and revealing aspects of the story. A Spanish queen sends a conquistador to the New World on a quest to find the mythic Tree of Life -- the sap of which offers eternal youth. All the while the queen's life is in great danger as the Inquisition draws near, ready to pounce on her for her unholy desire for extended life. This side-story, which beautifully mirrors current religious and popular inhibitions against life extension (perhaps unconsciously), was never fully developed and under exploited. But given that the purpose of The Fountain is to ascribe value to death, this only makes sense.

The second and most prominent setting takes place in modern day. Thomas Creo, a medical researcher and doctor (played by Hugh Jackman), is on an obsessive quest to cure his ailing wife of terminal cancer. Aronofsky has explored the theme of obsession before, most notably in his 1998 film Pi, in which a mathematical genius is driven to insanity as he tries to discover the meaning of existence in numbers and patterns.

In The Fountain, the main protagonist's obsessive flaw is his inability to come to grips with death and its greater purpose. His dying wife, Izzy (played by Rachel Weisz), has completely come to grips with the fact that she will soon die and has reached an inner peace. Tommy, on the other hand, is utterly blind to this and refuses to acknowledge it and understand his wife's decision. Instead, Tommy retreats to the lab in search of a miracle breakthrough; rather than spend quality time with his wife during her last days, he is away from her working feverishly to find a cure.

Aronofsky's portrayal of a patient dying of a brain tumor was dishonest and infuriating. Aside from the odd fainting spell and lack of sensation, Izzy did not look like someone who is dying of a terminal illness. By showing her as a young and intellectually and emotionally vibrant person just days away from death, Aronofsky irresponsibly idealizes and misrepresents the dying process (and ignores the ravages of aging altogether). Moreover, Izzy's grace at the prospect of her death, while certainly laudable, is hardly representative of all terminally ill thirtysomethings. There is a fine line that often separates inner peace from utter resignation.

Predictably, Tommy does not save Izzy in time. He is devastated by her death and resolves to take his research to the next level. At her funeral he admonishes the defeatism of the mourners and declares that aging is a disease that must be cured.

This is a damning characterization of today's life extensionist -- the notion that work on anti-aging falls outside the natural scheme of things and that the desire to avoid death leads to obsessiveness and an unfulfilled life.

And this is where The Fountain falls flat. Now, as a Buddhist, I regularly contemplate and meditate on the inevitableness of my own death. As a consequence, I like to think that I have a fairly healthy and non-traditional attitude about my mortality. I harbor no false illusions about the impermanence of my life. Future breakthroughs in life extension notwithstanding, I fully expect to die at some future point.

But that doesn't mean I have to like it. Nor does it mean I have to rationalize death in such a way that I must put a positive spin on it. In The Fountain, Aronofsky dips into Mayan mythology and suggests that there can be no life without death and that it is only through death that life can emerge. Consequently, Aronofsky portrays death as a creative force rather than a destructive one.

Personally, I find very few redeeming qualities in aging and involuntary death. Death is destructive. Its course brings about great suffering, both for those who are dying and for those who have ailing loved ones. Death destroys memories, wisdom, brilliance and unique personalities. More to the point, death is not a requisite for birth and life.

Which leads to the final setting explored by Aronofsky: a fantasy sequence set in the distant future. Thomas, it would appear, eventually comes to possess the Tree of Life and finds himself afloat in space in a giant snowglobe. His hope is to reach a dying nebula before the tree dies -- perhaps as some last gesture of re-birth and dedication to his long dead wife. It is here that he has an existential epiphany in which he comes to grips with his own mortality. His seed-like spaceglobe enters the birth-canal-like nebula in a symbolic representation of fertilization and renewal. In death there is new life.

In The Fountain's final shot we return to modern day as Tommy visits Izzy's grave -- a indication that Tommy has come to accept death and the passing of his wife.

Talk about sentimental claptrap. I was expecting something considerably deeper and intellectual from Aronofsky. Instead, he offers an over-hyped, sugar-coated and humorless film that perpetuates idealized and tired notions of death and what it means to humanity.

When will someone in Hollywood finally offer a thoughtful treatise on the human condition and truly challenging vision of the future?

Oh, yeah -- it has been done. Time to pull 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner from my DVD shelf.


Anonymous said...

Monday, 11 December 2006

Whew! Thanks for the warning, George. I had toyed with the idea of seeing this movie with a non-transhumanist friend and again with my sister. I hoped the movie might serve as a touchstone for reactions to the radical life extension meme. This seems no better a choice than Aeon Flux or Zardoz.

My sister would have indulgently laughed as I left the theater ranting about "more deathist crap!" I don't know how the other person might have reacted.

Once more, thanks for the save.

Anonymous said...

That's a wonderfully written post.

I find all of Aronofsky's work to be humorless and heavy-handed — methinks it's time to give Kronos Quartet their walking papers — so I was willing to accept this as a condition of viewing.

I agree that the film offers an idealization of death as a yet-to-be understood mystical boon. Smart money says it's just as likely to be a painful and permanent inconvenience.

That said, I wasn't particularly bothered by the dying bride's uncanny attitude and vigor. I took Weisz's portrayal with an 8 oz container of salt, because the entire film is stylized to the point of unreality. I mean, do brain surgons really work by gaslight?

I found quite a few Buddhist messages in the picture. Sure, the tacky visuals looked stolen from a Tool video. Nothing says *mystical* like the full lotus! But acceptance is a core tenet of Buddhism, and I believe that is The Fountain's central conceit.

Again, a great post. I'll be coming back to this blog for certain.

Dr. Leonid Gavrilov, Ph.D. said...

Thank you for your interesting post!
I thought perhaps you may also find this related post interesting to you:
Longevity Science: Forever and Ever

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you had such a strong reaction against the film, particularly as you mention that you are buddhist. I won't pretend to know a whole lot about Buddhism, but it seemed to me that there were some obviously Buddhist imagery and themes in this film: reincarnation, impermanence, suffering from desring something one cannot attain; and at the end, enlightenment, breaking the cycle of re-birth and becoming one with the light (Nirvana).

I may be reading too much into it, but I can't figure why else 'future' Tom would be meditating in the lotus position, bald, and floating into the light....

Anonymous said...

It's very interesting to me that you are a buddhist and found the film so poor. I too am a buddhist and found it one of - no in fact the most - thought provoking film I have ever seen. Both of Daron Aranofsky's parent's were diagnosed with cancer within a month of one another, so I feel that if his portrayal of someone dying of cancer was not how you have either envisioned it or seen it first hand, this is probably because you have seen things differently to him, or he portrayed it this way on purpose.
I was taught that we die many millions of times a day - every moment ('i feel different... every moment') and that it is domething that we must learn to accept, and that in our acceptance of death lies freedom.
The thing that I love about this film is that it doesn't explain itself - I've read a few reviews and everyone seems to think the film is saying something different. In fact the film isn't saying anything - you are. My interpretation of buddhism, is that words and analysis do not explain life, sitting in meditation allows us to see things how they are without judgement. I would encourage people to watch this film and just let it sink in. But then, i'm not enlightened, and probably don't really know what i'm talking about.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I must disagree with you here, George. I too am a life extensionist (well, ok, I despise that term, it is so insipid and camp), and I found The Fountain to have many different meanings. Aronofsky himself said that his narrative was a Rubik's Cube. Certainly, it is easy to see fatalistic themes within the film, but I do not believe these must be said to dominate that film.

Not being a Buddhist, I was not very familiar with those aspects of the themes, but I was acutely aware of many Catholic injections: the Monstrance (which represents the glory of eternal life, because it displays the Eucharist) clearly laid out in distinction with the Grand Inquisitor, who represents the pain of death (metaphorically, holding Spain in bondage). The Inquisitor, by the way, is a Catharist heretic, the relative significance of which I am sure must have been lost on many. This means that he considers the spirit intrinsically separate from the flesh, and the flesh to be evil. Of course, the Tree of Life and the story of the Fall of Man are present in the sequences following the Conquistador. However, I digress...

What I really took away from The Fountain was not that it was a damning critique of the quest for life extension, but that it was a psychological exploration. Sometimes, people die, and we cannot help it, nor do anything about it. It cannot be fixed. In fact, people die quite often. As you pointed out, barring life extension technologies which may or may not materialise within the lifetimes of people alive to day, it is to be fully expected that everybody living currently will die, possibly quite unpleasantly in many cases (though I question how many will be incinerated by a supernova any time soon). What I saw of this film was that it was an exploration of fidelity and ethics in a posthuman future. Here is my interpretation:

The main character, Thomas Creo, is indeed quite unready to accept the fact of his wife’s death, and by extension, the fact of his own. I felt it was that because of his love for her, he conflates her life for his frequently. He violently refuses to accept that they will not spend their lives together. The fact that he blindly believes he can save her, and desperately desires to do so (and then does not) is extremely traumatic to him and clearly drives him into mania. There were many other researchers there working on the arboreal derivative with him, but these individuals are not portrayed as being obsessed, and they all show deep concern for his state of mind during the course of his wife’s illness. What I found to be the most significant parts of the film were the, well, what I considered to be the “Present” sequences, those parts of the film which take place within the ecosphere heading towards the nebula (in my understanding, the rest of the film is in Thomas’ memory). In my eyes, these scenes tie the film together into a cohesive whole – what we learn from them is that he has allowed himself to become fixated upon the life of his deceased wife, and refuses to let go and move on with himself. He becomes completely incapable of properly exulting in his great research triumphs (as the other, ‘normal’ researchers are shown to be justifiably exhilarated at their discovery), because his life has become frozen around Izzi’s life, which he believes to be inseparable from his own.

Indeed, it is the nature of terrestrial life forms that we recycle ourselves – we are information patterns which grow, change, and react to external stimuli, but when we become no longer able to engage in continued growth and adaptation, when we stagnate and are “stuck” at some stage in our lives, then we die and are recycled, because entropy marches on. The key to survival is not freezing yourself in some state and maintaining inviolable homeostasis infinitely, that’s not how thermodynamics works, and as such, that’s not how we work. The key to survival is constant growth, renewal, and adaptation. That is how we live, because that is how life works. The “death as an act of creation” motif reflects this very well – when you cannot go on because you have permanently “matured,” then, quite simply, you must make way for your fellow life forms, which will take your place and recycle you into their continuing evolution. The “life cycle” quite literally is such; it is a repeating, autocatalytic process that adapts with each iteration according to evolving environmental conditions.

The view of “death as an act of creation” is therefore technically accurate, but from a humanistic point of view, deeply antiquated. If “death is the road to awe,” then it is only so for the living – when you die and decompose, if your decomposed remains feed the growth of a tree and the fruit of the tree feeds a bird who flies away, it is not “you” who flies with the bird, as the Maya guide asserts in the film, it is the material of your composition. Such a view of death requires a reduction of human persons to mere atoms, when in fact we are much more. A much more likely explanation for this belief, rather than its truism, is that we humans simply enjoy rationalising our seemingly inevitable deaths by projecting our conceptions of our loved ones onto aspects of the world, and we see this happen in the film.

The researcher, Thomas, clearly is incapable of accepting his wife’s death, and so eventually becomes convinced (in his increasing mental instability, caused by his ongoing mania) that the tree he has symbolically planted over her grave at the end of the film (the tree they derived the life extension compound from) is in fact she herself (it is so only in his mind). He then embarks upon an increasingly mad quest to bring her to the location of the Maya underworld (Xibalba), to fulfil her last request of him, to finish her story, which she states ends in Xibalba. By the end of the film, in the ecoship, Thomas, who now exists as a posthuman entity (he lives in a bubble without sunlight or fresh oxygen, subsisting on fragments of tree bark and drops of water which he consumes every few months or years), has clearly driven himself insane with his “black quest.” He has audio-visual hallucinations, and frequently and vividly relives aspects of his memory, often acting out the actions he recalls performing. He takes extraordinary steps to purge himself of all competing impulses that might deter him from his mission (he meditates, probably for months or years continuously, given the length of the voyage). He has disfigured himself with his memories of Izzi, both in the sense of his obsessive self-tattooing and in the sense of his obsession with her life and his unending desire to preserve it (and continuing failure of recognition that it has already ended).

I believe that in the past, it was Izzi’s writing of her book, “The Fountain,” which helped her to come to terms with her death. Indeed, at the beginning of the book, the Queen (who represents Izzi) is quite desirous for her conquistador to bring her back the secret of eternal life, and only over the course of that story arc do we come to view the quest to survive indefinitely as futile. Much of what she discusses with him, regarding the conceptions of death found in her book, of death being “the road to awe” and “death as an act of creation” were clearly devised doing research for that book. Of course, Thomas’ incapacity to complete the last chapter of her book, as per her last request, symbolises in a very real way to him (and to the audience) that he is “stuck,” psychologically speaking, at that point in the “story” where death is all he can see (these were the last words written in the last chapter Izzi completed before her death). He desperately clings to the notion that, through the surviving tree, the final “chapter” in her life story, which he has been entrusted to complete, may yet see her protagonists’ survival. The fact that he tattoos himself with the pen and ink she arranged for him to write the last chapter with indicates that his obsessive quest, which has lead him in to this fantastic voyage, is ‘itself’ (in his eyes) the last chapter. Again, we see his own life story being tied inextricably to her own (in his mind, at least). He imagines that by arriving at Xibalba with Izzi’s tree, that he can thereby complete her story before “she” (in fact, the tree) finally dies, and of course the impending supernova of the star inside the Xibalba nebula means, as he sees it, the destruction of death (another parallel is the attempted assassination of the Grand Inquisitor in the book). He believes that, by being present with Izzi’s tree at the destruction of death that they can live together forever.

However, Izzi’s tree does itself die before the star within the nebula is reached, forcing him, for the first time, to confront the fact that even in his delusions, Izzi is finally and truly gone, and cannot be brought back. He finally realises that he is, in fact, alone, and that he has been alone for quite some time. Ultimately, when his hallucinations persist, he comes to realise that it is because they represent an aspect of himself, and not an aspect of Izzi. He has finally been forced to disentangle his life from Izzi’s life, as far as he sees it, and he is forced finally to face the fact that Izzi is dead, and that, through obsessing over her and thereby stagnating as a person, he has killed himself. He is, after all, hurtling towards a supernova at relativistic speeds, and now has no excuse not to notice that this course of action can only result in his destruction. He cries out at his hallucinations that he wishes to be abandoned by them (he wants to stop being afraid, he wants the fear and melancholy they represent to subside), and ultimately he realises, with the help of his hallucinatory visions, that he is responsible for his own death, which is now unavoidable. What appears at first to be a perverse smile of gratification displayed by his hallucination at his admission of his own impending death is in fact simply a reflection of the relief he feels at being finally unburdened by the pain of his death and his wife’s death. In his mind, he is now free to “be with her.” He therefore ends the story, and by leaving the ecoship in his own, smaller “bubble craft” in meditation, he demonstrates his freedom and independence from the oppressive and traumatic memory of his wife’s mortality. Ultimately, he is disintegrated by the supernova, but has found liberation from his incapacity to appropriately deal with the fact of Izzi's and his own particular inevitable deaths. In his ending to Izzi’s book, the conquistador, Tomas, in his obsessive quest to conquer death for his Queen Isabella, ultimately hurls himself into death’s waiting jaws, only to thereby be recognised by the Maya priest as First Father, the spirit ancestor who sacrificed himself to achieve life.

Although the film might seem to have strong fatalistic connotations, I do not believe these to be intrinsic to it. I believe, rather, that an acceptably life-affirming interpretation is indeed possible, and desirable. What the film said to me, rather than that “death is good” and “has a natural order,” was that we cannot allow death, however ghastly and untimely, to stand in the way of life. When Thomas’ hallucination asks him at the close of the film if he will “free Spain from bondage,” it is not asking about an indefinite lifespan – he already has that – it is asking him to start using it.

Anonymous said...

I watched the film, and was immediately struck by its negative tone. The minute that the protagonist declared aging and death to be diseases which should, indeed MUST, be cured, I cheered the sentiment...yet I was also aware that the idea of curing the disease of aging was being presented as something negative. Very disappointing overall. Perhaps it was the "Conquistador" sequence that brought it to mind, but I could only think of tout Cortez and his men, silent upon a peak in Darien, only looking back the way they had come, ignoring the potential of the new worlds of life extension opening before them.
Remember the poem?
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Anonymous said...

Although well-written, I don't think this is a fair review of Aronofsky's film. If you go into a film expecting it to match your own personal beliefs about death, etc, you're bound to be disappointed. A film should be true to its maker's vision - not pander to anyone's notions of morality or religious undertones. Deconstruction of a movie and pointing out its variance from your own viewpoints does not a good review make.

Author Gabriel Land said...

I agree with the above commenter, I prefer reviews that focus on execution...writing, cinematography, acting, directing, story structure, pacing, etc., rather than theme. With this regards, I think The Fountain had some flaws but overall was well executed...well...maybe 'executed' is not the best word for a film about death...ah.

One of the aspects of the story that stood out for me was how his wife was dying and he was feverishly working in the office. It belies the paradox of the protestant work ethic and transhumanism in general.

We work so hard for science, to gain and gain and gain knowledge, and thus power. But at the end of the day the most common regret people have on their death bed is not spending as much time with family.

Izzy was dying. But Creo was not actually living. Not actually valuing his moments with her. Almost as if he died first in his relentless pursuit of knowledge and discovery.