In Neill Blomkamp’s just-released movie Chappie, Hugh Jackman plays a former military officer living in a near future that’s designed to reflect the present day, with only a few flourishes making its advanced year apparent. To see Jackman in a distinctly futuristic environment, you’ve gotta travel back in time…specifically to the year 2006 when the Australian actor starred alongside Rachel Weisz in Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious genre hybrid, The Fountain. Though plagued with problems behind the scenes and in front of the cameras, that movie also features one of the most visually stunning and utterly unique cinematic worlds of tomorrow yet realized on the big screen, one that will likely continue to stand the test of time.
The future is only one of the things on Aronofsky’s mind in his idea-packed passion project. An emotional contemplation of death and the Great Beyond, The Fountain’s circular narrative spans three eras and settings: the 16th-century Mayan Empire, present-day America and deep space circa 2500. The contemporary storyline serves as the hub that the other two stories revolve around; in it, Jackman plays Tom, a grief-stricken neuroscientist desperate to find a cure for his wife Izzi (Weisz) who has an incurable brain tumor.
While her husband rages against the dying of her light, Izzi proves more accepting of her fate, finding solace in ancient Mayan lore about death and rebirth. That research inspires her to write a novel set in Mayan times, about a conquistador (Jackman) who journeys to the New World under orders from Queen Isabella (Weisz) to find the mythical Tree of Life. But her story lacks an ending, so she entrusts that final chapter to Tom, who takes five centuries to complete it. Taking up residence in a see-through biosphere, which he shares with a dying tree, he sets off into the cosmos to reach the Mayan underworld, a distant nebula called Xibalba.
By his own admission, Aronofsky was almost obsessively determined to make The Fountain a reality and remained undeterred even as the project was rejected from studio after studio. In the process, he let some high-profile jobs pass him, most notably the task of reinventing the Batman franchise, which was subsequently entrusted to Christopher Nolan after Warner Bros. deemed Aronofsky’s darker-than-The Dark Knight take on the material too risky. However, Warners did give him the go-ahead on The Fountain after the director managed to secure the participation of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as Tom and Izzi.
Budgeted at $70 million, the film was gearing up to shoot in the fall of 2002 when Pitt made the abrupt decision to switch his allegiance to the swords-and-sandals war movie Troy, instead. His departure put the film on indefinite hiatus, from which it finally emerged three years later with a drastically lower budget ($35 million), re-tailored screenplay (to see Aronofsky’s original vision in its unaltered state, pick up the graphic novel version of The Fountain, published by Vertigo in 2005) and new stars (Jackman and Weisz in place of Pitt and Blanchett). Considering the subject matter, the significance of the film’s demise and resurrection wasn’t lost on the director. As he told The New York Times on the Fountain’s Montreal set in 2005: “It has been birth, death, rebirth for this film, which is interesting because it is very much what the movie is all about as well. Each time the movie has died and come back, it has come back leaner and meaner.”
For all of Aronofsky’s passion behind the camera, The Fountain didn’t spark the same level of intense ardor amongst audiences when it arrived in theaters in November 2006. The movie earned mixed reviews and a paltry $10 million domestic gross by the end of its brief run. Amid the shrugs that greeted its release, there were more than a few full-throated Fountain evangelists, some of whom took the long view and argued that the film would only be fully understood and appreciated with the passage of time. Flash-forward almost a decade later, though, and that kind of re-evaluation has yet to occur; the people who adore the film still adore it, but it’s almost regarded as more of a footnote in the director’s filmography, sandwiched between Aronofsky’s breakout one-two punch of Pi and Requiem for a Dream and hits like 2008’s The Wrestler, 2010’s Black Swan and 2014’s Noah.
Watching the film again, it remains an unwieldy contraption, constantly circling around its grand ideas without always connecting with them. The conquistador sequences suffer the most from the film’s slashed budget, struggling to recreate the grandeur of the Mayan Empire on claustrophobic soundstages with a limited cast of extras. The present-day storyline proves similarly suffocating, albeit for dramatic, rather than technical, reasons. Since Izzi’s sole purpose in this section of the film is to die, she remains a frustratingly vague character — a “Manic Pixie Death Girl” if you will. Meanwhile, Jackman’s operatic emoting quickly becomes exhausting to watch.
But, boy oh boy, those deep space scenes! At the time and still today, every exquisite moment The Fountain spends in that futuristic bubble is cinematic gold. Eager to depict space travel in a way never seen onscreen before, Aronofsky eschewed computer effects and instead sought inspiration from marine biologist/photographer Peter Parks, who conjured up the movie’s transporting space-scapes on his self-invented “microzoom optical bench.” As Parks explained to Wired magazine, this device allowed him to drop all sorts of ingredients — dyes, baby oil — into a thin film of water and take highly-magnified snapshots of the resulting patterns. The movie’s most dazzling scene, where Jackman’s ship finally arrives Xibalba, speaks to the effectiveness and economy of Parks’ methods. For a mere $140,000, he created a nebula that was highly impressionistic, yet also vividly realistic.
The uniqueness of the intergalactic sequences are reason enough to hope that The Fountain does one day emerge from its relative obscurity and gain a wider audience, certainly amongst young filmmakers eager to explore different deep space territory beyond the Star Wars/Star Trek model. As impressive as the black holes and fifth-dimensional pocket universes glimpsed in Interstellar were, Aronofsky’s version of space travel captures the full grandeur of the cosmos and, along the ways, fosters a mythical atmosphere that the rest of the film never quite reaches. In a movie overflowing with ambition, it’s the one element that’s fully realized.
Watch the trailer for The Fountain:
Photo credit: Warner Bros.