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Science Fiction Babushka Dolls

January 16th, 2009 · 5 Comments

The Fountain (2006)
Screenplay by Darren Aronofsky, story by Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Produced by Protozoa Pictures/ Warner Bros. Pictures/ New Regency Pictures
Running time: 96 minutes

The Fountain 2006 U.S. poster The Fountain 2006 European poster


“Therefore, the Lord God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and placed a flaming sword to protect the tree of life,” writes a woman in a book. A Spanish conquistador (Hugh Jackman) dispatched on a crusade by his queen (Rachel Weisz) reaches the top of a Mayan temple before being mortally wounded by a priest. Moving into the distant future, what appears to be the same man travels through space in a transcendent bubble, on a mission to deliver a dying tree to a supernova. Moving back in time to what appears to be the present day, neurosurgeon Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman, again) searches in vain to find a cure for the brain tumor afflicting his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz, again). She shares with her husband a book she’s written titled The Fountain, a chronicle of immortal love that spans one thousand years. Before her death, she gives her husband the key to finishing the story.

Production history
Darren Aronofsky was a few weeks away from shooting his second feature film – Requiem for a Dream – in March 1999 when he went to the movies with actor Jared Leto. Aronofsky recalls, “I walked out of The Matrix with Jared and I was thinking, ‘What kind of science fiction movie can people make now?’ The Wachowskis basically took all the great sci-fi ideas of the 20th century and rolled them into a delicious pop culture sandwich that everyone on the planet devoured. Suddenly, Philip K. Dick’s ideas no longer seemed that fresh. Cyberpunk? Done.” Aronofsky’s friend Ari Handel had earned a Ph.D in neuroscience from NYU in 2000, but instead of making a career in academic research, took the director up on an offer to write something together. Over long walks in Brooklyn, Aronofsky & Handel arrived on a science fiction tale that would stretch across time, a story within a story within a story that Aronofsky likened to “Russian matryoshka dolls.”

The Fountain 2006 Hugh Jackman Sean Patrick Thomas

Handel recalls, “We would plan out the scenes and the characters then Darren would go off and write. I would read what he wrote and give thoughts then work on something. But he basically did the writing of it. At various times in various ways I would be involved with editing that and conceiving the way certain things would happen. I worked him on the structure and the outline of the characters but he put it all together. This was repeated over and over again because the screenplay was rewritten many times. The film is like a jigsaw puzzle, sometimes frustratingly so. Often rewrites felt like when you see yogis on television squeeze themselves into a box then a foot would be sticking out then they would have to get the whole guy out of the box to get that foot in. That’s how complicated it was.”

The screenplay – which Aronofsky code named The Last Man, but intended on calling The Fountain – was a fusion of Handel’s research into astronomy, brain cancer and the afterlife, and Aronofsky’s fascination with Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s experiences as a 16th century conquistador. Somewhere in there, Aronofsky also wanted to explore the meaning of life. “That’s what The Fountain is for me: those late night conversations you had with your college roommates where you basically sat around and talked about what is consciousness? What is existence? That’s, for me, what the exercise of the film was about, it was to explore these big questions and to explore the big questions I think everyone has to come into it and start thinking about how they answer those questions for themselves.” Brad Pitt had seen Requiem for a Dream and was so cuckoo to work with Aronofsky, the star called within half an hour of the director dropping the script off to say he would play the lead.

The Fountain 2006 Hugh Jackman

Lorenzo di Bonaventura – the executive VP of worldwide motion pictures for Warner Bros. – also felt Aronofsky was a major talent, having signed him to write a Batman origin story with Frank Miller. In June 2001, Warner Bros. announced it was moving The Fountain on the fast track for production, with Cate Blanchett joining Pitt in the top secret sci-fi project. While Aronofsky had shot his debut Pi with $60,000 in donations from family and friends, and Requiem for a Dream on a $5 million budget, the cost of The Fountain was tabbed at $60 million. As a September 2001 start date crept closer, that figure climbed to at least $72 million. Warner Bros. tapped the brakes, putting the production on an extended hiatus. Cate Blanchett spent much of the next year on maternity leave, Pitt turned down other job offers – growing a mountain man beard for his character’s scenes in New Spain – and Aronofsky labored to unravel his ambitious screenplay with an eye on reducing costs.

Production of The Fountain was rescheduled for October 2002 at Warner Roadshow Studios in Queensland, Australia. A crew of 450 technicians was – by Aronofsky’s estimation – 60-70% finished constructing the elaborate sets, including a 120-foot tall Mayan pyramid. 150 performers cast as Mayan warriors were waiting to be flown in from Guatemala. Aronofsky had storyboarded and shot listed the entire film. Then seven weeks before cameras were set to roll, the director received a call from Brad Pitt’s agents at CAA notifying him that their client was dropping out of The Fountain. Warner Bros. president of production Jeff Robinov would later admit that Pitt found the original script brilliant, but flawed, and was not satisfied with Aronofsky’s attempts to streamline the story. Aronofsky recalls, “After working together for two and a half years, Brad lost trust in me and faith in the project. He told me he felt like he was breaking up with a girl.”

The Fountain 2006 Rachel Weisz Hugh Jackman

Efforts to find someone else to take The Fountain to the prom when Pitt exited were unsuccessful. Warner Bros. – having sunk $18 million into the project – pulled the plug a second time, sending the crew home and auctioning off the sets. Seven months later, in the summer of 2003, Aronofsky was unable to sleep. He found his research materials still staring at him from his bookshelf and recalls thinking, “What is the cheapest version of this film that still captures what it’s about and captures the spectacle of it, but I don’t have to deal with all the nightmares? So I literally started writing and two weeks later, this version of The Fountain came out and it was a very different film, but everyone who read it felt it was better. Because I didn’t have to write it for a price, a studio, or for an actor, I was purely writing what I wanted to write, I was able to finally shape it into what it was meant to be.”

Scaling the film back with an independently minded aesthetic, Aronofsky’s producer Eric Watson estimated that Version 2.0 of The Fountain could be produced for roughly $35 million. Warner Bros. agreed to bankroll it, splitting costs with producer Arnon Milchan and his New Regency Pictures. Watson admitted, “We may have been naïve when we started The Fountain about the way Hollywood works. We learned it, and looking back I don’t know if I would have wanted those lessons, but I have them. We thought the whole process was set up to get movies made but you still have to fight.” Aronofsky met Hugh Jackman, who was performing on Broadway in The Boy From Oz; the actor was not only as enthusiastic about the script and working with Aronofsky as Pitt had been, but suggested the director’s fiancée Rachel Weisz be considered as the female lead. In November 2004 – over two years after being shut down – The Fountain finally began shooting, at Technoparc Studios in Montreal.

The Fountain 2006 Rachel Weisz

Premiering September 2006 at the Venice Film Festival to a mixed reaction, The Fountain made a blitz through several festivals – in Toronto, Austin, Chicago – before opening in the U.S. in November. Critics uniformly trashed the long delayed dream project. Carina Chocano, the Los Angeles Times: “Bloated and logy, and art-directed within an inch of its life, the movie shovels heaps of phony portent and all-purpose mystical imagery onto a thin and maudlin plot.” A.O. Scott, the New York Times: “The problem, though, is that its techniques run too far beyond its ideas, which are blurry and banal, rather than mysterious and resonant. The Fountain is something to see, but it is also much less, finally, than meets the eye.” Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle: “Aronofsky’s reach far exceeds his grasp with this film, and the muddle he concocts makes one wonder if there was ever a solid foundation for The Fountain. Hope may spring eternal, but this fountain is a dry hole.”

The Fountain grossed $10.1 million in the U.S. and $5.8 million overseas, but if Aronofsky had any regrets, he didn’t air them during a media roundtable in November 2006. “I’ve always made divisive films. Whenever you try to make something new, something different, some people are going to want to hang with it, some people are going to shut down. I had the same kind of response on Requiem and the same response on Pi. So I’m very used to it. I know the amount of labor and love that went into The Fountain and, for me, it represents that work so I’m very proud of it. It’s interesting because it’s not the critics that judge films anymore, it’s the public. Because of the Internet, you get people writing in and creating dialogue and that’s what you want to do: you want to make an impact. When you get a 20-year-old kid writing three pages on a talkback about your film, that’s the victory for me. It means that kid has a great experience with it. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

The Fountain 2006

Trying to diagnose what went wrong on The Fountain takes an approach like Mission Control’s in Apollo 13; it’s easier to talk about what’s actually good in the film than it is to check off all the systems that are FUBAR. Clint Mansell’s orchestral score is grandly elegant, even if the movie it was composed for does not live up to the sweep of the music. Much of the framing, compositions and camera movements are ornate, even if the Pay-Less sets give director of photography Matthew Libatique precious little to work with. And Darren Aronofsky’s devotion to bringing “psychedelic” back to sci-fi deserves an extra credit point, even it’s on a project that flunks out of the class. In The Fountain, the universe is as mysterious as a fortune cookie, love is as infinite as a bad soap opera and the future is as awesome as a Hare Krishna floating through space in his pajamas.

The budget definitely does not help Aronofsky get his ideas across any more coherently – the Mayan jungle and space bubble sets are so obscured and cheesy looking that taking the movie seriously becomes an exercise in futility – but it’s the screenplay that ultimately writes a check that the director cannot cash, even with his admirable visual skills. Characters remain flat (the gravitas of Ellen Burstyn, Mark Margolis, Cliff Curtis and Ethan Suplee go to waste in bit parts.) Dialogue is unintentionally funny (Jackman’s line reading upon discovering the tree of life: “Behold!”). Most stupefying for a film so inspired by 2001, Star Wars or The Matrix – at least in terms of wanting to take sci-fi to new places – The Fountain regresses to vague film school drivel where artistic ambition is everything and imagination means little, even in stories about the mysteries of the universe.

© Joe Valdez

The Fountain 2006 Hugh Jackman

“The Outsider”. By Steve Silberman. Wired, November 2006

Tags: Alternate universe · Ambiguous ending · Bathtub scene · Dreams and visions · Museums and galleries

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Neil Fulwood // Jan 17, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Inadvertently, the Austin Chronicle’s critic nails it: “Aronofsky’s reach far exceeds his grasp.” The quote is basically a bastardisation of a line by Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

    Render that line in full and it’s a kinder, if still brutally accurate, description of what went wrong with ‘The Fountain’. Aronofsky’s reach didn’t so much exceed his grasp as exceed what Hollywood was willing to put up for such an essentially existential, cerebral and (by dint of being existential and cerebral) uncommercial a picture.

    I found ‘The Fountain’ a frustrating viewing experience – I’ll be the first to admit that. It’s flawed. It drops the ball in several places. Dialogue is stilted. It skids past its artistic principles in several places and falls flat on its arse in the sandlot of pretentiousness.

    But for all that I can’t find it my heart to dislike it. Maybe it’s because, after the breezeblock-to-the-head experience of ‘Requiem for a Dream’, it was an affirmation just to have Aronofsky make a film about the eternity-spanning endurance of love. Maybe it’s because Rachel Weisz was in it and nothing she’s ever appeared in can be devoid of merit purely because of her inclusion.

    Or maybe it’s simply because Aronofsky’s reach DID exceed his grasp. Maybe making ‘The Fountain’ was like trying to make ‘2001’ with a budget of $2.50. Ultimately, at least he tried.

  • 2 Yojimbo_5 // Jan 19, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    “The Fountain” has been a reservoir of controversy for me. When I reviewed it, I got blistering attacks from people who cried during it.

    You go into one of these “reach exceeds its grasp” things hoping, pulling for the director to make it work, and when he doesn’t–even on a relatively miniscule budget (I think budgetary limitations make a director hone and perfect his art, rather than restrict it)–you have to acknowledge the miss.

    I didn’t enjoy “The Fountain” but I admired the production design of what was there, especially the “space” scenes, and especially the sound design, which I thought the best of the year.

    But the whole thing left me thinking of the old Barbara Walters question “If you were a tree, what sort of tree would you be?” and whistling “The Circle of Life.”

    I played it for the wife on DVD, and her reaction (she’s a sentimentalist) was “Eh?”

    Oh, and in answer to Neil Fulwood’s Rachel Weisz question: “Fred Claus.” She’s still a fine actress with a fine eye for parts.

    This is a fine series, Joe. Cutting, but not catty. Responsible.

  • 3 AR // Jan 19, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    I enjoyed reading more about the background of this film. Sometimes I wish I researched films in as much depth as you do.

    I really liked this film, despite all of its flaws–the main one, as you mentioned, being the flatness of the characters. It actually suffers from the weight of its themes and the beautiful intricacy of the plot. Yet, visually it’s gorgeous and does remind one of the kinds of SF/occult films being made in the 60’s and 70’s. I saw it in the theatre, and I have to say it was an amazing experience.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Jan 19, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Neil: In addition to offering a Texan perspective to the critical poles in New York and L.A., I find the Marjorie Baumgarten’s reviews for the Austin Chronicle to be very well thought out. Who knows if she still has a job there or if there even is still a newspaper in Austin. Anyway, like you, I cannot hold grudge against Aronofsky for trying to make something different and meaningful, even if he failed. Thanks for commenting!

    Jim: I don’t know who your readers are, but I’m surprised to hear such a virulent mob exists for this movie. It would be interesting to see whetherThe Fountain held up for them past opening weekend. Maybe, maybe not. I will say that the responses here have been lengthy, so Aronofsky did at least succeed in spurring some intense discussion. Thanks for commenting.

    Amanda: That’s the best compliment I’ve heard today. Thank you so much. As soon as I saw your name in this comments box, I knew you weren’t writing to bash The Fountain. Any photographer would have to be impressed by Aronofsky’s eye. And from what I’ve gathered about your taste, Aronofsky seems to make the kinds of movies you cotton to.

  • 5 AR // Jan 21, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Yes, Aronofsky’s one of my favorites of the young filmmakers to crop up since the 90s. Even if you don’t care for his films overall, it’s hard to deny his abilities with cinematography and editing. At the very least, you have to respect his devotion to making intense, difficult movies about difficult subjects.

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