THE FOUNTAIN written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. 96 minutes. A Warner Bros. release. For venues and times, see Movies, page 106. Rating: NNNNN
Until the fountain, Darren Aronofsky had made just two movies - the noirish math thriller Pi and the triphoppy drug opus Requiem For A Dream, both art-house attractions that found a cult audience only after they went to DVD.
But he's already a director whosework gives Internet fanboys geekgasms.
And they'll likely cream their keyboards yet again at the sight of his latest, a six-years-in-the-making psychedelic sci-fi love story inspired by Mayan mysticism, experimental neurophysiology, existential philosophy, the search for the meaning of life and David Bowie.
"I really hope they get off on The Fountain," says Aronofsky. "It's got sword fights and a spaceship and Wolverine in it, but it's not a blockbuster kind of film."
Aronofsky, a Harvard-educated New Yorker whose work is influenced more by TV, video games and anime than by other films, is bracing himself. A few days before he sat down with me at the Toronto International Film Festival, his little space oddity was booed by critics at the Venice festival, while audiences at a public screening the next day were brought to their feet.
Critics at TIFF were similarly divided, crusty grey-haired head-scratchers versus satchel-slinging Aronofsky apostles.
"I don't know how to say this in a polite way, but you probably get more cynics who end up being critics than are in the public," says the boyish 37-year-old, picking a piece of lint from his natty grey suit.
"When you watch a movie as a critic, you're there to judge it. That doesn't allow you to enjoy a film just for the experience, and this is definitely an experience film. It's dense and complicated, and, yes, it has some stunning visual effects, but it's also a tender romantic fable that asks some big questions. And some people don't want to deal with those questions in the context of a 90-minute movie, if ever."
As troubled as The Fountain's reception has been, it's a drop in the Milky Way compared to its conception.
Set in three separate time periods 16th-century South America, the contemporary U.S. and an intergalactic bubble containing the tree of life and weaving together a conquistador's quest for immortality, a scientist's search for the cure to his dying wife's illness and a bald cosmonaut's journey toward enlightenment, The Fountain was originally a $70-million epic starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.
But two months before production started, Pitt, an early fan of Aronofsky's Requiem, bailed to make Troy, and the project fell apart. (Ironically, Pitt and Blanchett can be seen together in Babel.)
While Aronofsky toyed with other projects last year's Batman reboot, for example he couldn't let his story, which is ultimately about accepting death, die.
He had The Fountain published as a graphic novel, and convinced the studio to give him another shot, albeit with half the original budget.
To pull it off, Aronofsky cast Aussie Hugh Jackman as the Spanish conquistador/scientist/spaceman and Brit Rachel Weisz, an Oscar winner for The Constant Gardener and Aronofsky's fiancée, as his millennial paramour.
Aronofsky also trimmed the story to its essence, forgoing expensive location shoots in favour of a Montreal sound stage and replacing pricey CGI with photo-real effects to "give the film a more timeless quality," he says.
So, does the The Fountain live up to The Fountain he originally envisioned?
"You never quite envision a film. It just sort of grows and emerges, like a bonsai tree that you shape and try to make perfect but you can never completely control," he says. "Am I satisfied I told the story I wanted to tell? Absolutely. It's a very organic process, and the film has taken the form it has to take. No matter what the critics say." email@example.com
THE FOUNTAIN (Darren Aronofsky) Rating: NNNNN
The Fountain is the boldest Hollywood film of the year. It's also the most divisive, with advance audiences booing and cheering in equal measure. And why not? It's not every day that a filmmaker tackles a big philosophical issue like the meaning of life head-on in a big-budget movie.
In this case, Darren Aronofsky gives us a millennium-spanning love-story-cum-swashbuckling-medical-thriller that transcends the space-time continuum, starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. Call it 2001 meets Terms Of Endearment, a space oddity in the truest sense.
Jackman's three characters - a Spanish conquistador, a modern-day scientist with a dying wife and a futuristic spaceman - are even named Tom, after the Bowie tune. The film is stunning, both in its trippy visuals and its emotional depth, and demands repeated viewing, with or without the aid of pharmaceuticals.