Darren Aronofsky's gorgeous, time-bending epic The Fountain is arriving on DVD today, and I recently had a chance to sit down and watch it on a small screen for the first time, after seeing it six or seven times in theaters last fall. My original verdict -- that it was one of the five best films of 2006 -- still holds up, although I have to say that its greatest strength lies in its amazing visuals, so it needs to be seen in the theater first. If you're watching it for the first time on the small screen, you're really missing a crucial part of the experience, especially where the final segment is concerned. There are too many distractions in a home environment -- or in mine, at least -- to allow you to wrap yourself up in the serene starscape as Tommy (Hugh Jackman) and Tree Izzy (Rachel Weisz) ride their pod-bubble into the maw of a nebula. If you just did a double-take on that last sentence, don't worry -- it's not quite as trippy as it sounds.
The film -- and I'm sure that I'll get some argument even on this -- only exists in the present day, or 2000 A.D., rather. Tommy, a medical doctor who (I hope) has a license to operate on monkeys in order to study their brains, is using his research to try and find a cure for the disease that is ravaging the body of his wife, Izzy. Meanwhile, Izzy is trying her hand at writing a fantasy novel about a conquistador in sixteenth-century Spain who is set off by the Spanish Queen to find the elixir of life, contained in a special South American tree. This fictional story, which is played out in The Fountain as being as real as the present day segment, eventually jumps from 1500 A.D. to 2500 A.D. The story is now being written by Tommy instead of Izzy for plot reasons, so he finishes it with his own flourish. So, in essence, the story isn't fantastical at all, because all the fantasy elements are 'book sequences.' Anyone want to argue with that plot description?
I've put off talking about what's actually on the DVD until now, because there really isn't much to talk about. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's bare-bones -- there are six mini-features, which are really one big one, cut into six chapters-- but other than that, only a trailer. Is Warner Bros. holding off for a double-dip? I would imagine so, otherwise there's really no excuse for such a stripped-down disc when it's a big-budget special effects film we're talking about. The first mini-doc, titled 'Australia,' will be incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't already know the story of the making of The Fountain. In a nutshell, the film was originally geared up for production in Australia in 2002 and then abruptly shut down when star Brad Pitt unexpectedly pulled ouf of the film. Although they shut down the film, Warner Bros. did tell Aronofsky they would resurrect the project if he could find another A-lister to star, and when he came up with Hugh Jackman, they gave him half his budget back.
Since Brad Pitt's name was obviously banned from being used on this DVD, what we see in 'Australia' is the production moving forward, props being assembled, locations being scouted, and then ... cut to Aronofsky sitting at a conference table, telling crew members that "after the worst week, professionally and personally, of my life, the studio is shutting down the production." The question of 'why' isn't addressed. After intertitles tell us that the production eventually got re-birthed, we cut to 'The 21st Century,' a segment on filming the present day scenes in Montreal in 2004. We get to see some of the actual shooting here, including actors' dialogue, which is rare as a DVD extra, so that's pretty interesting. There's also some good back and forth between the production designer and cinematographer. After 'The 21st Century,' we move to 'Spain -- 16th Century,' with much of the same thing -- a B-camera recording snippets of actual filming happening. There's a great moment during this sequence when Aronofsky says, responding to a severe look from Jackman, "Who said I wasn't going to shoot Batman?"
Mini-doc number four is 'New Spain,' which shows us the filming of the conquistador battle scenes. Then there's 'The Endless Field,' which focuses on the film's amazing climactic moment, when after drinking the sap of the tree of life, the conquistador's body is turned into a living flowerbed. We learn that Aronofsky was reluctant to use CG in these scenes, and filmed much of it with bladder technology, only turning to CG for the opening of the actual flower petals. We also get to see footage from Jackman's early rehearsals of these scenes. The last doc is 'The Future,' which shows us the filming of the tree-ship sequence and goes into the use of macrophotography for the special effects -- again, as an alternative to CG. There are also some funny moments when they debate whether or not Jackman will have to go completely bald for this part of the film. Fans of The Fountain should get a kick out of these six mini-docs, but no audio commentaries? No normal-length documentaries? No interviews? Come on.