Similar to Cloud Atlas, The Fountain weaves together three stories which stretch across time and space with the same actors playing characters in each strand. As the narrative jumps about between story strands, we begin to find out how they are related and which characters and stories are real and which are made up.
Plenty of spoilers in this ramble so be warned.
Strand 1: in Spain, the inquisition is waging a war against the queen of Spain who is searching for the fountain of youth. Hugh Jackman is a Conquistador sent by the Queen (Rachel Weisz) to find the fountain. Conquistador Hugh travels to South America looking for the fountain and loses most of his men in the effort. When he finally gets there he is unaccountably aided in reaching his destination by the very “savages” who killed off his fellow soldiers.
When he finally makes it to the tree for some reason known only to his feverish brain he stabs it up with a ceremonial dagger and gobbles bits of it up before promptly turning into compost.
Strand 2: in roughly modern day, Hugh is a medical researcher trying to find a cure for his wife (Weisz again of course) who has a terminal brain tumour. The dying wife in this middle segment is writing a book that turns out to tell the story of strand 1 but stops unfinished. This section goes into unnecessary detail about the science which is unfortunate because it is absurd. Ironically, researcher Hugh discovers a drug that reverses aging but does not help with his wife’s cancer. She leaves behind the unfinished book her dying wish being for her husband to finish it.
Strand 3: Some weird new age crap with the tree of life floating in a bubble in space. Hugh is now floating around in space, apparently alone with a tree and some writing equipment, haunted by memories of his past. Everything here has a slightly hallucinatory feel to it. Everything is generally very serene in the floating space ball and there is some absolutely beautiful space imagery. Space Hugh spontaneously ejaculates “I don’t know how it ends” echoing the words of Scientist Hugh later in the film (but chronologically much earlier) when his wife asks him to finish her book for her.
Space Hugh amuses himself by tattooing rings around various parts of his body with an old fountain pen and generally hallucinates events from his past. He spends a lot of time contemplating the view and regularly scrapes bits of bark off the tree (which also seems to have hairs which stand up like human hairs) and eats them.
Since all of the historical stuff only takes place in Hugh’s imagination as he reads his wife’s book and then completes the story, it is only normal that he imagines himself and his wife in the key roles. It is hard to tell at the end whether the space travel bits are “real” or Hugh’s imagination taking the story to it’s wildest conclusions. In fact it is very difficult to tell is any of the segments are “real” and it often has the feel of a conceptual movie rather than a coherent narrative. Unfortunately there isn’t really any conceptual content to replace the missing story.
I quite like the ambivalence and darkness of the ending. But the rest of the film is not particularly dramatic, thought provoking or interesting. Parts of it are beautifully filmed, especially the space scenes and the brief parts spent with the tree in South America but others, especially the historic parts in Spain and South America are dark and dull.