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We Failed This Film: Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Fountain’ (2006)

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We Failed This Film is a series about underrated films that simply didn’t receive the love they deserved upon initial release. For the 17th entry, we’re taking a journey through time and confronting our mortality with Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious and underloved The Fountain.

How We Failed It

After breaking out with small indie films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky went about his first endeavor working with a studio and A-list stars. It was a rocky experience from the beginning. He jumped into his most ambitious project yet, The Fountain, almost immediately after Requiem for a Dream, nabbing Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett to star, with a massive $70 million budget from Warner Bros. Unfortunately, weeks before production was set to begin in 2002, Pitt pulled out of the film over issues with the script. Aronofsky couldn’t find a suitable replacement in time, and the film was shelved.

Years passed, Aronofsky pursued other projects, but he eventually couldn’t keep himself away from The Fountain. In 2004, he rewrote the script to a more stripped down version that would cost less and got Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz (then his wife) to star. Aronofsky also convinced Warner Bros. to finance the film at half the cost of the previous attempt, and they were willing to try to make back what they had already spent on sets (plus any studio will sign a check if Wolverine is your lead). Production resumed once more, and Aronofsky finally got his passion project made.

Aronofsky’s experimental narrative follows three different storylines — Tomas, a conquistador during the Grand Inquisition searching for the Tree of Life in the Mayan jungle for Queen Isabel; Tom Creo, a neuroscientist studying brain tumors and trying to save his dying wife Izzi; Tommy, an astronaut floating through space (with a tree) on an expedition to the center of a dying star. Hugh Jackman plays all three roles, and Rachel Weisz takes on the role of Izzi and the Queen Isabel in each of the storylines.

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The Fountain HD images

That was only half the battle, though, as the film still had to be released and do well critically and commercially. The Fountain opened to a dismal $3 million, topping out at only $10 million domestically, with foreign markets only kicking in an additional $5 million, leaving it at $15 million worldwide — all against a much larger $35 million budget. To be fair, it’s really hard to market an art film that follows three storylines across time that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to a large audience. It’s a wonder that this film got made at all, and it’s surprising that it received a fairly wide release of almost 1,500 theaters.

Critics were fairly split and middling on the film, as it’s a polarizing and elusive one. A.O. Scott had a fair reading of The Fountain with both praise and criticism, noting the undeniable ambition of the work: “The three stories are not told in linear order, but in a circular, swirling pattern that suggests a mandala or a Mayan calendar. Circles also figure prominently in Mr. Aronofsky’s visual scheme, and he seems to be trying, with a seriousness of purpose that few American filmmakers attempt, to subvert the essentially sequential nature of film. Like a story by Jorge Luis Borges, The Fountain dispenses with everyday assumptions about time, space and causality and tries to replace the prose of narrative cinema with a poetic language of rhyming images and visual metaphors. I wish I could say that it succeeded. At his best — which is to say as a maker of gorgeous, haunting compositions (exquisitely rendered in Matthew Libatique’s cinematography) — Mr. Aronofsky can achieve an eloquence that suggests a blend of Andrei Tarkovsky (speaking of rhymes) and comic books. But his commitment to conveying meaning and emotion through painstakingly constructed images also gives the movie a static, claustrophobic atmosphere. (When Queen Isabel notes that “these are dark times,” she seems to be commenting mainly on the relentless chiaroscuro of the lighting design.)”

A year after its release, Roger Ebert revisited the film with an even hand: “I will concede the film is not a great success. Too many screens of blinding lights. Too many transitions for their own sake. Abrupt changes of tone. And yet I believe we have not seen the real film. When a $75 million production goes into turnaround and is made for $35 million, elements get eliminated. When a film telling three stories and spanning thousands of years has a running time of 96 minutes, scenes must have been cut out. There will someday be a Director’s Cut of this movie, and that’s the cut I want to see.”

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Why It’s Great

The first time I watched The Fountain, my reaction was somewhat middling as well. I could tell that what I had just watched was very well made on a technical level, and that the performances were great, but at the same time I had no idea what any of it meant. As much as I appreciated the craft, I didn’t connect with the film on any intimate level. It lingered on in my mind, though, and about six months later I revisited The Fountain, and suddenly it all clicked. After a rewatch, The Fountain revealed itself to be a beautiful and mesmerizing meditation on love, life and death. I was a wreck on this viewing as The Fountain seemed to whisper directly to me about all my fears regarding death and what comes next, and to help me ultimately confront and accept death as a part of life. I know I’m probably too young to have serious fears regarding death and the afterlife, but I have them, and next to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, The Fountain is the most personal a film has gotten with me regarding these themes.

As perfect as he is as Wolverine, it’s almost easy to forget that Hugh Jackman is also capable of delivering incredible performances, that he’s not just a watchable movie star (also see: Prisoners). He’s playing three different roles here, but it’s not that challenge that makes his performance(s) so memorable and impactful. It’s the way he oscillates between the three and how they each relate to each other. Each character is feverishly determined to bypass the dichotomy of life and death, and Jackman puts out a raw emotion in portraying this existential battle. Between The Fountain and The Prestige, 2006 saw one of the best years for Jackman. Rachel Weisz is as fantastic and empathetic as ever in her roles as well. She makes Izzi a glowing figure in her brave performance of confronting death. The chemistry between herself and Jackman feels authentic and romantic. Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis and Requeim for a Dream star Ellen Burstyn contribute supporting roles as well.

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Clint Mansell delivers his finest work in a great career with a mesmerizing score. He worked with the Kronos Quartet and members of Mogwai, and there’s an intriguing mixture of powerful strings and intimate piano pieces, each of them fully enveloping the emotion on screen. Full disclosure: his score for The Fountain is my second favorite score of all time. The Fountain is also worthy of a home release with material to enhance the film, as the current home release has next to nothing, not even a commentary track. Aronofsky released a commentary track for the film online, although it is no longer available.

Aronofsky’s creation of the space and stars around his astronaut is both  innovative and breathtaking. Rather than spending millions of dollars on visual effects in post-production, he filmed microscopic imagery of microorganisms and enhanced them to create stars. Bypassing the easy and traditional route of costly visual effects, he creates something far more stunning and lasting. Ten years later, these effects still look incredible.

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The cinematography from Matthew Libatique is striking, each image that he and Aronofsky create make the film worthy of a shot-by-shot analysis as the visuals are all devoted to the themes of rebirth, life and death, with several images reappearing in each storyline to suggest the interconnectivity of these themes across these vast timelines and characters. Images of the hairs on trees are recreated with the hairs on Izzi’s neck. The dying star of Xibalba is referenced in how the snow appears with the light on a sky window. The astronaut Tommy does tai chi, his figure a black silhouette against the stars to communicate his connection to the universe. The look and feel of The Fountain is reminiscent of Tarkovksy and Kubrick in its grandeur and feverish otherworldliness.

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The film’s winding themes all come together when the astronaut finally realizes his impending mortality, and he announces to himself, “I’m going to die.” He begins to tear up, from both happiness and sadness, and he almost chuckles at the realization of it. It was in this moment during the second viewing that hit me the hardest. I’m going to die, and that was okay. There is a beauty in death. Tom plants a tree over Izzi’s grave so that she will become a part of a new life like a story that she told him, and that tree becomes the one that accompanies the astronaut on his journey to Xibalba. When that dying star ends, it will give birth to new stars. Death gives birth to life. Death is the road to awe.

Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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