Death in Cinema: Pop Culture Meets Philosophy

Fountain-Splinter-TNNearly twenty years ago, a wise figure once said, “Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki.”  This astute sensei was none other than Master Splinter, from 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  No matter one’s beliefs on politics, religion, or lifestyle, the only certainty in life is the knowledge that one day we are going to die.  It is a brutal truth, and one conveyed perfectly by Master Splinter, who then teaches his four children that in death, one must find honor.  It is ironic how a movie directed at children holds such a high amount of gravitas on this matter, when there are many films directed at adults that dumb down the notion of death.    Taking this idea of Master Splinter’s and applying it to the recent state of cinema, it is clear that Hollywood loves to kill off its main characters to toy with an audience’s emotions. 

In the case of Titanic, James Cameron pulled this off so well, his movie made a billion dollars.  There’s a tremendous difference in the way certain directors depict death as opposed to others, say for instance, Pirates of the Caribbean, or G.I. Joe.  With these popcorn movies, death is nothing but a mere backdrop to accompanying action.  The weight a human life is meaningless next to the impending giant explosion.  But, within the vast array of meaningless death, there is one director that stands far and above the rest with his ability to portray every emotional aspect of death, Darren Aronofsky.  It is the way Aronofsky brings the audience inward towards his characters’ hearts, and reveals their inner turmoil over death that makes him one of the finest directors of this era.

In fall of 2006, Aronofsky’s The Fountain was released amidst an onslaught of equally bleak films: Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men, and The Departed, among others.  The one constant within all of these films is the theme of death, and it was with this oversaturation of genre films that The Fountain was lost in the mix, a buried gem that shines even brighter today on Blu-ray.  The richness of the film’s black and gold color motif, inspired acting performances, haunting soundtrack, and more all coalesce to make this film a visceral experience more so than just a causal viewing.

All of Aronofsky’s films, including Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and more specifically The Fountain, have at their core an emotional anchor that hooks one in from the beginning, and brings the viewer deep into a character’s mind as they deal with the idea death.  Hugh Jackman’s performance as Tommy in The Fountain is sorely over-looked as one of the finest acting jobs of the past decade; quite an accomplishment coming from a man who’s most famous role is that of Wolverine. 

Within Jackman’s performance and Aronofsky’s direction, death is portrayed in an uncommon light; the idea that death can provide as much beauty as the act of birth and that the two are necessarily intertwined.  Everyone has his or her own view as to what happens after death, but the humbling truth is that no one knows until it is his or her time.  What The Fountain vividly displays is the theory of reincarnation, and the devastation of repeatedly losing the ones we love.

There is a particular scene in which Tommy comes home late, and crawls into bed with his cancer-ridden wife Izzy, played marvelously by Rachel Weisz.  He tries to hold her close, but has to pull himself away, fight his tears back as he stumbles into the adjacent room, knowing that the longer he is with her, the harder it will be to let her go.  It is a heart wrenching moment, and it is this internal torment that Jackman’s character is forced to deal with throughout the film. 

Thus, when “future” Tom is more fleshed out, it can be understood why he seems to not feel emotion anymore.  He has lost this woman throughout time, always believing that only in life can the two be together. It is not until the end that he realizes that it is not in life where they will be eternally bound, but rather in death.  And this is what makes the film so poignant, showing that beauty and eternal love so rarely associated with death. 

Master Splinter’s message was that in death there is honor to be upheld.  Aronofsky’s vision was that the idea that eternity is not something anyone can comprehend.  At some point in their lives everyone questions how it will end for them.  One can only hope that with death comes the notion of living forever with loved ones.  And that is a comforting thought.


Death in Cinema: Pop Culture Meets Philosophy





1 Response to “Death in Cinema: Pop Culture Meets Philosophy”

  1. Chris

    Beautiful, thought provoking and for a single guy a bit of a tear jerker. Thanks again for another fine article Mr. Ambro.