2006: A Space Oddity

Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in a time-tripping, psychedelic love story set in three different centuries. The story of how it got made is either (a) the story of a gifted director who refused to quit on an idea and bet his career on the movie of his dreams, or it's (b) a folly about a myopic talent who set out to make an Important Film and ended up delivering a silly one. Case in point: this story's author loved the movie; this magazine's film critic called it "a ludicrous farrago" in these pages. Strong words, but Aronofsky ("Pi," "Requiem for a Dream") doesn't flinch. "I grew up in Brooklyn," he says in his chummy Coney Island accent. "I can take it. The fact that the movie is so divisive--that's what I've always done. And I made the film I wanted to make. It's out there in the world."

"The Fountain" began shortly after Aronofsky turned 30 and his parents were diagnosed with cancer just weeks apart. They both recovered, but it got him thinking about mortality, and he started working on a mammoth script about the fountain of youth, focusing on a scientist racing to cure his cancer-stricken wife, a Spanish conquistador hunting for the fountain and a spaceman floating in a bubble toward a dying star. It was the kind of film Hollywood would never touch without an A-list actor. But Aronofsky had one: Brad Pitt, who admired "Requiem" and reportedly cried when he read "The Fountain." Warner Brothers gave Aronofsky a $70 million budget.

But costs gradually began to rise, the star and the studio demanded script revisions--and Pitt began to waver. Just seven weeks before shooting, he pulled out. The film collapsed. Aronofsky was crushed. To this day, though, he insists he's cool with Pitt. "Look, I was let down. But I have no issues with Brad. It was like a relationship, and when you break up with a girl after two years, you can't say, 'It's because she leaves off the toothpaste cap.' It's more complicated than that." (Pitt declined to comment.)

The studio tried to get Aronofsky on to another movie, but he only had eyes for "The Fountain." "There was something haunting me about it," he says. "And you've gotta keep that fire about a movie, because everyone-- everyone --always says no." War-ner Brothers production president Jeff Rob-inov says Aronofsky's determination left him feeling "a combination of impressed and dismayed. Unless you're in that person's head, it's hard to understand." To some, it was like a sad echo of the film's protagonist: a guy who can't come to terms with his loss. Even loved ones tried to talk him down. Weisz, who lives with Aronofsky and their newborn son, says: "If that many people tried to stop me, I would've definitely given up." Instead, he went back to his script and began slashing pricey sequences. Pennies pinched, he cast Jackman and Weisz, and with the studio's re-blessing, he shot one of the most visually audacious $35 million movies ever made.

This is supposed to be the happy-ending part. But "The Fountain" drew scattered boos at its Venice Film Festival world premiere in September--and then, the next two nights, ovations. Its supporters admire the film's beauty and daring; its detractors find it overblown and hokey. "This is a very earnest movie. It's a fairy tale," says Aron-ofsky. "Toward the end, there's a Buddha guy floating toward a dying star, the orchestra strings are going crazy, I'm danc-ing as fast as I can. My chips are all on the table. So you can be a party pooper. Or you can sit back and have a good ride." This much is clear: it'll be one or the other.