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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Aronofsky’s pro-death ‘Fountain’

George Dvorsky

Sentient Developments

December 11, 2006

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.


George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


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