Despite referencing Christianity, Mayan animism, and Buddhism, The Fountain is simultaneously a religious and irreligious film. It chronicles the stories of Tom, a wandering space traveler, Tommy, a scientist who wants to cure his wife of cancer, and Tomás, a conquistador searching for the Tree of Life, in order to stop death itself. All of these characters are played by Hugh Jackman. Each version of Tom — Tom, Tommy, and Tomás — looks for faith in death but receives no resolution. Accordingly, the individual stories communicate a common objective: a search for life scientifically or religiously.
Referenced in the first book of Genesis, the Tree of Life sustains the entirety of humanity — it is life itself. Though the Tree of Life is associated with Christianity, it is not unique to it: Buddhism has the Bodhi tree, and the Maya believed in the Ceiba. Notably, the three stories of Tom connect with the Tree of Life. In Tomás’s subplot, he looks for the tree to provide his queen with immortality. Concurrently, Tommy extracts bark in hopes of finding a cure for his wife’s cancerous tumors. Tom is a cosmic traveler, sustaining himself with wood chips, searching for Xibalba to restore the dying Tree of Life. For Tomás and Tom, the tree represents a spiritual awakening: Tomás seeks immortality with the Queen of Spain, following tales of a tree providing eternal life hidden in Central America. However, when he finally reaches its trunk and drinks its sap, he transforms into vegetation.
Although becoming and sustaining life, he cannot harvest the tree’s powers to reanimate his queen. Tom simultaneously struggles with the same plight; as he reaches Xibalba he realizes that the tree cannot survive the journey — and neither will he:
Instead of doing that, however, he sees the Queen of Spain, who was supposed to just be in Izzy’s book meant to teach Tommy his lesson, and in that moment he finally understands: He says, “I’m going to die,” with a sense of relief and deep satisfaction in his trembling, quivering voice. And through the lessons of the past, Tom can finally accept his destiny in the future. (Runyon, a film reviewer on Movie Mezzanine)
Tom’s journey contains syncretic references to Christianity, Buddhism, and Mayan religion. By consuming the tree bark, he recreates Communion: he is eating the flesh of his God (or life-provider). In achieving Buddhist moksha, he releases himself from the cycle of rebirth (samsara) by accepting his fate. Xibalba, the dying star Tom seeks, represents the Mayan underworld. Noticeably, none of the religions present any simple truth about mortality.
Tommy writes the characters of Tomás and Tom after his wife’s death. In actuality, Tommy finds no spiritual resolution, cannot revive his wife, and creates Tom to embody his insurmountable grief. The Fountain is not about religion but atheism. The film ends with the resolution that all lives end in death:
Tom is not an embodiment of Tommy’s grief. Rather, Tommy literally wrote himself into the story. Think about it, in order to complete both the book and his emotional arc/grieving process, he had to insert himself into the narrative in order to externalize his grief and overcome it. If that’s not an apt metaphor for an artist like Darren Aronofsky making a deeply personal experience about coping with mortality, then nothing is. The Fountain isn’t a film about unlocking the secrets of the universe. It’s a film, like his feature debut Pi, about learning to live without them. Search for order, and only chaos will infect your life. Embrace the chaos, however, and the world feels like it has more order than ever before. (Runyon, “The Darren Aronofsky Retrospective: ‘The Fountain’”)
Though it might initially seem irreligious, Tommy’s narrative follows the hero’s journey. The Fountain is a deeply personal film, and unlike many depictions of the hero’s journey, it ends without finality. Rather, it is the myth of the atheist searching for answers to questions that are unanswerable. Nonetheless, Tommy experiences a similar cycle to Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth that spawns his quest for eternal life. His call to action is his wife’s cancer diagnosis, his revelation is his acceptance of personal mortality (“I’m going to die”), and his final transformation is his acceptance of his wife’s death. He experiences a sacred moment writing her unfinished book. The Fountain is about the sanctity of transience. The film does not attempt to answer the question it poses about immortality. Instead, it posits that current existence is more significant than what lies in the future. Quite literally, the film ends in a devastating explosion.
While some reviewers have interpreted the final scene as a rebirth, it could also represent the chaos of life itself. Simply put, we should enjoy life because we will all ultimately dissipate into cosmic dust. Regardless of interpretation, as Matt Withers states, “Instead of giving us easy answers, Aronofsky gave us all an opportunity to explore that which is deepest and most sacred in ourselves and those we love.”