Darren Aronofsky made quite a stir with his first two pictures, Pi and Requiem For A Dream. Pi made him an indie darling and brought his unique world view and filmmaking style to people's attention. Requiem For A Dream was one of the few highlights of the dreary cinematic year of 2000, and caused quite a controversy. And whether you love him or hate him, it's clear that he is the kind of director that's making movies like nobody else. It took six years for him to follow-up Requiem with The Fountain, but boy was it worth the wait.
Tommy (Hugh Jackman) is trying to find a cure for cancer, so he can save his wife Izzy's (Rachel Weisz) life. Izzy spends her final days studying Mayan myths and writing a fictional book called "The Fountain." The book's protagonist, Tomas (Hugh Jackman) is a conquistador sent by Queen Isabella (Rachel Weisz) of Spain to find the Tree of Life spoken of in the Bible. In the distant future, Tommy floats through space in a bubble with a tree that appears to have extended his life by several centuries. He travels through space to get to a star spoken of in Mayan myths, a star Izzy pointed out to him before she died. He is plagued by visions of her and constantly relives his past, unable to move on.
The Fountain is Aronofsky's meditation on love, death, and life. It's intensely symbolic but also very literal. In many ways, it's like Eyes Wide Shut. Both films show the main male characters in situations that stretch the bounds of credulity, and may not in fact be real. But the reality of the event does not change how said events affect the the main character, in this case Tommy. Both the trips into the past and the future reflect his state of mind in the present. And as he begins to grow and come to grips with losing his wife, the stories change and merge into one glorious explosion of enlightenment.
Aronofsky's vision as a filmmaker has never been more clear than it is in The Fountain. Both Pi and Requiem took an impressionist mode of attack, using small pieces to suggest a larger whole (the best example of this would be the "quickie hits" when someone shoots up in Requiem). The Fountain goes the opposite direction, giving us a massive overarching story to describe the events in one man's mind. While he crouches his story in symbolic imagery, Aronofsky never loses sight of the main thrust of the tale he's telling.
Hugh Jackman works very well in the most demanding role he will probably ever play. He has to lament the loss of his wife not just once, but over and over again, and as three different people (or three different aspects of the same person, if you like). He throws himself into the role with abandon, losing himself in his character's obsessions. Rachel Weisz has a very different role, that of someone who has already accepted death and thus appreciates life more because of it. Seeing as how she appears the way Tommy sees her, she's far more ephemeral and wispy than he is. Still, she's very believable and effective.
Finally, there's the score by Clint Mansell. Mansell has worked with Aronofsky on both of his previous pictures, and music has always played a large part of Aronofsky's work. Here, the music is both more integral and less noticeable. The themes weave themselves around the characters without overtaking the scenes the way the music tended to do in Requiem. In fact, it was only upon repeated viewings that I noticed the music is constantly playing, reinforcing the flow of the overall story, not just the individual scene or a single time period.
The Fountain is meticulous and demanding. It demanded a lot of the people who made it, and just as much from those who watch it. It's not an easy experience, but a rewarding one. And of all the films released in 2006, it is by far the most unique.
The HD DVD:
Warner Bros. presents The Fountain in a 1.85:1 VC-1 transfer. Aronofsky's shooting style proves difficult to bring to home video, but I think WB did an admirable job. Specifically, the film has a tendency towards extreme white light, which could easily lead to blooming at several points, but there was none I could detect. The modern day has a much more subdued color palette, and the transfer handles blacks and subtle shades of color very well. I was very happy with the way this turned out.
For various reasons, not every HD DVD comes with lossless audio, and The Fountain is frustratingly one of those left in the cold. However, a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix is still better than plain old Dolby Digital, and this is no exception. Dialogue comes across cleanly and audibly. The music has come to the forefront without overwhelming the rest of the audio, which is to the disc's benefit. A good mix that should have been lossless.
The Fountain is a combo disc, with the movie in HD and supplements on one side, and then the movie in SD on the second side.
The Interview: A brief but insightful conversation between Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, covering the genesis of the project, how they got involved, their thoughts on the themes and characters, and how demanding the actual shoot was. The video was shot during the shooting of the picture, so they're right in the thick of it. Weisz acts as the interviewer, prompting Jackman and interjecting comments where necessary. Jackman is eloquent and excited, despite repeated claims of exhaustion. You can tell the two loved working on the movie and with each other.
VFX Step By Step: A montage of special effects shots, from the base footage all the way through to the completed scene. However, no one from the effects department comments on what we're seeing, so we're left in the dark as to how they get from one step to the next.
Inside The Director's Mind: An extremely misleading title for a storyboard to screen comparison.
Inside The Fountain - Death and Rebirth: An hour long documentary that looks at the process of making the movie, from initial idea through to completion. Features loads of on-set footage, rehearsal footage, post-production, everything you could imagine. It's clear that the filmmakers were there every step of the way. Very thorough and shows the massive scope of shooting a movie like this.
Peter Parks Bonus: One of the facts pointed out in the documentary is that all of the nebula shots were done through macro-photography, the process of taking close-up shots of very small objects. In this case, the shots were of chemical reactions in petri dishes (this is exactly what Kubrick used for many of the sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and this supplement is a montage of the raw footage shot for use in the movie.
Theatrical Trailer: Not in HD, sadly. Great trailer, though.
The Fountain is not your everyday movie. It requires great attention and thoughtfulness on the part of the viewer. But its rewards and manifold and worth treasuring. The HD DVD edition features robust image and sound that benefits the film greatly. While The Fountain isn't for everyone, those who appreciate it will certainly want to get this HD DVD. Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.