Two Long-Awaited Movies — ‘The Fountain’ And ‘Watchmen’ — On The Way (Or Under Way) At Last

Aronofsky's stunning film opens this fall; Alan Moore's classic gets belated Hollywood green light.

— by Kurt Loder

After a long, rocky struggle to get it made, director Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” will finally arrive in theatres on October 13. Aronofsky has already proved himself a strikingly original filmmaker with his two previous pictures, “Pi” (1998) and “Requiem for a Dream” (2000). But “The Fountain” takes off into wild and intoxicating new imaginative territory. It’s one of the most gorgeous movies in recent memory.

A “psychedelic sci-fi film” (as the director calls it), “The Fountain” is a love story told over the course of a thousand years, from 16th-Century Spain to the present day and then on into the far reaches of space in the 26th century. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz (Aronofsky’s fiancée) are the leads. In Renaissance Spain, she is Queen Isabella and he is Tomás Verde, a loyal conquistador she dispatches to the New World to find the Mayan “tree of life,” which could preserve her own life against the horrors of the Inquisition. (The history here is very approximate.) Five hundred years later, he is Tom Verde, a research scientist frantically seeking a cure for the cancer that’s killing his beloved wife, Izzi. Another 500 years pass, and now he is traversing remote galaxies in a gleaming sphere, still searching for the mystical substance that will save the woman he adores and enable their love to live forever.

Aronofsky has said he spent two and a half years working on the original version of “The Fountain” with Brad Pitt. By 2001, he was ready to make the movie at Warner Bros., from his own script, with Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the leads. Director and star had an unspecified falling-out, though; Pitt bailed, and the project fell apart. In 2004, Aronofsky re-floated the film at Warner, with a reworked script and a budget reported to be little more than half the $75 million he’d been allotted for the first version of the movie. (His original script, illustrated by Kent Williams, was published as a rather lavish graphic novel last November by Vertigo Comics.)

Finished at last, “The Fountain” is a stunning achievement, especially considering its meager budget. The outer-space sequences have a vast, dreamlike beauty that recalls the galactic wonders of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” — the movie that set the bar for poetic celestial imagery nearly 30 years ago. Aronofsky’s film is smaller in scale, but it feels big. It’s an art movie in the best sense: a picture distinguished not by the heft of its budget, but by the conceptual brilliance of its creator.

It’s interesting to note that before making “The Fountain,” Aronofsky was briefly attached to a film version of “Watchmen” at Paramount in 2004. It’s too bad he isn’t making that movie. As you may have heard, somebody else is.

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But then “Watchmen,” the universally esteemed comic-book series by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons, has been the object of several failed screen versions since its publication by DC Comics 20 years ago. At least two scripts have been written. One was by Sam Hamm, who took on the assignment after co-writing Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman.” This script was to have been filmed by Terry Gilliam, who felt that Moore’s story was “the ‘War and Peace’ of comics.” But Gilliam found Hamm’s script inadequate, and eventually the project foundered. (The director later said he felt that any movie that sought to do justice to the dense storylines of “Watchmen” would have to be three and a half hours long.)

Aronofsky was to have used a much better script by David Hayter (who worked on the first two “X-Men” movies); so was Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”), who stepped into the “Watchmen” director’s slot after Aronofsky’s departure. Then, last year, following a Paramount regime change, Greengrass and Hayter were severed from the project, and the studio put the property into turnaround — where it was snapped up by Warner Bros. (whose parent company, Time Warner, also owns DC Comics). Now, Warner has announced that “Watchmen” is definitely back in play. The new director will be Zack Snyder, who did the 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” but whose background is mainly in TV commercials. The writer will be Alex Tse, whose only previous scripting credit is “Sucker Free City,” a cable-TV movie directed by Spike Lee.

Considering the track record of the directors previously attached to the “Watchmen” project, Snyder (who’s currently wrapping up the film version of Frank Miller’s 1998 comics series, “300″) and Tse seem an unusual choice to finally bring this much-admired story to the screen. Can they get it right? A large and obsessive audience of “Watchmen” fans, their desire for a faithful screen adaptation so long denied, must certainly hope so. Should this latest creative duo screw it up, that audience will surely demonstrate its displeasure at the box office in a memorably painful way.

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