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The long, strange trip of 'The Fountain'

By Todd Leopold
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Perhaps Darren Aronofsky should have called his new movie "Love and Death." (Though that's been taken.) Or, for prurient viewers, "Rachel Weisz in a Bathtub." (But that would be misleading.)

Either way, such a title might have eased the marketing for a film about Big Ideas: the desire for perpetual life, the hunger for love, the resistance to death.

But "The Fountain" it is, and "The Fountain" it will stay upon hitting theaters Wednesday. Aronofsky knows it might be a struggle to draw audiences to his sometimes cosmic love story, but he also knows he's striking a taproot deep in the human psyche.

"At the core of 'The Fountain' is the search for the Fountain of Youth," he says in an interview at CNN Center. "This is one of the oldest myths of humanity -- it's in 'The Epic of Gilgamesh' [the ancient Babylonian poem, perhaps dating back to 2000 B.C.], it's in Genesis, it's the Holy Grail, it's what Ponce de Leon was searching for. It's even," he adds wryly, "the theme to 'Nip/Tuck.' "

With the search for the Fountain of Youth -- and, by extension, eternal life -- comes its flip side, the fear of death, he says.

Dying and living

"The Fountain" combines this ancient theme with a love story -- literally a love for the ages.

Hugh Jackman plays three characters -- a 16th-century conquistador, a 21st-century scientist and an astronaut of the far future -- and Weisz plays his beloved each time. Jackman's character is searching for eternal life, whether as the conquistador looking for it, the scientist researching a substance that contains it or the astronaut pondering its meaning. (Eternal life can be awfully boring.)

However, Weisz's character is separated from Jackman's at each juncture: first by class and distance, as the conquistador's queen who sends him across the Atlantic; then by disease, as the scientist's dying, cancer-stricken wife; and then by spirit, as the astronaut's memory, for which he's traveling to the far reaches of space for a hoped-for reunion.

Binding the stories together, besides the performers, are the characters' names (variations on "Thomas" and "Isabel"), mythology (Mayan as well as Judeo-Christian) and a series of symbols, ranging from a sturdy tree (of life, naturally), to circles and color (particularly black and white).

If all that sounds complicated, it's nothing compared with the problems Aronofsky had getting the picture made.

It's been more than seven years since the writer and director came up with the idea for "The Fountain," seven years in which he gained, lost and then regained financing, seven years in which one star (Brad Pitt) who had committed to the movie uncommitted and seven years in which he found a fiancée (Weisz). (Want more? Read this Entertainment Weekly storyexternal link.)

But through it all, he was committed to the idea of a film about, well, love. And death. And the yin and yang of the two.

Best and worst

He rewrote the script, reconceived the film -- originally budgeted at $70 million-plus, according to Entertainment Weekly, it now came in at around $35 million -- and set about the production process again. This time he landed Jackman and -- with some reluctance, he says -- cast his fiancée, Weisz, as the female lead.

"When Jackman was cast, we put together a list of possible co-stars," Aronofsky recalls. It was Jackman's suggestion, he says, to add Weisz to the list. The two met and "they clicked," Aronofsky continues. "So we threw caution to the wind and rolled the dice."

Which is only one of the risks the film has taken. At its premiere in Venice, it was greeted by both cheers and catcalls; early reviews generally have been rapturous ("audacious" and "visionary" are two words that have come up) or merciless ("pretentious," "turgid"). One Internet criticexternal link called it "the worst film of an atrocious year," countering the critic who called itexternal link "the best film of the year."

Aronofsky can only shrug. "It's easy to shout it down," he says. "There are a lot of holistic ideas in the film."

He knows the film can be challenging, noting that much of the literature termed "science fiction" is intended to be thought-provoking. Contrast that with Hollywood's idea of sci-fi, which (with rare exceptions) is often "hijacked by the hardware [special effects]," he says.

"When you read science fiction, after about 80 pages, the world comes into focus," he says. "We wanted the same feeling for the film. But then the information starts coming in and you get a sense of what's going on ... and the puzzle comes closer to solving itself."

At the least, he says he hopes the film makes viewers think -- not always the easiest request in today's moviegoing environment. "The Fountain" longs to take viewers on a spiritual journey along with 90 minutes of entertainment.

"The basic idea is that I think people forget about loss and how important it is to our lives," he says. "And beyond that, what interests me is the spiritual core that connects all of us."

What makes us human, he adds, is the fact that life is fleeting. But our connection to one another is, literally, eternal -- we are all made up of pieces of the big bang, and our ashes will bring about new life somewhere else.

"We've forgotten that connection," Aronofsky says. "Yet it is a part of our lives, part of our spiritual journey. And the film became an exploration of that."


Three faces of Hugh Jackman: As a 16th-century conquistador searching for the Tree of Life ...



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