The Fountain explained

The controversy
The Fountain: a beautiful mess or something more? If you look up reviews , you’ll be confronted with two extremes: those that thought it was sheer drivel and those that thought it was the one of most incredible film ever. Why such a disparity?

Each opinion is a function of how many aspects the viewer appreciated from this multifaceted work. Those that gave it a 1/10 likely did so because they judged it primarily on the story itself (which was basic at its core). Everything else was superfluous or pretentious. That is rather unfortunately because the story represents only a third of this work and not necessarily the most important part. In fact, in some ways the story serves as a vehicle for the ideas and high concept imagery. Those that gave it anywhere from a 7/10 to 10/10 either highly appreciated one aspect or appreciated more than aspects. Perhaps only a small minority of the 10/10s fully appreciated all three aspects and was briefly transported into the mind of the creator.

This article will start by briefly explaining the story, but its main focus will be on the film’s ideas and symbols, arguably the most inaccessible aspect for most people. I believe that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but no one should dislike something largely out of ignorance. This article is geared towards people who have already seen the film, so it contains SPOILERS.

The story
So people disagree about the story. That makes things interesting, but for this article to be effective, it helps to be on the same page. Here is the simplest explanation of the plot that I could come up with. Stop reading here and skip down to the next section if you still want to figure things out for yourself.

The story is confusing mainly because it is told in non-chronological fragments. This confusion can be greatly reduced by accepting reincarnation as a key element. Thus the protagonists (Tomas/Tommy/Tom) are all the same person, reincarnated over a thousand years until he unlocks the science of immortality. Isabella/Izzy is also reincarnated many times until Tommy drops the seed on her grave and she becomes the Tree of Life. Based on these assumptions, we can then reorder the plot sequences to yield a chronological story timeline that goes something like this:

  • Past – Isabella starts Tomas on his quest for eternal life. He finds the Tree of Life but dies because he is unworthy. They both are reincarnated until the present.
  • Present – Izzy is dying but comes to terms with it. Tommy refuses to accept it. Izzy write The Fountain, an unfinished book about their past, and asks him to “finish it.” She dies. Tommy throws himself into researching the Tree and unlocking the science of immortality. He drops a seed on Izzy’s grave, and she becomes a Tree.
  • Future – Tom and the Tree are approaching the dying star, Xibalba. The Tree begins to die. Tom despairs but finally “finishes” The Fountain when he lets go and embraces death. The star explodes, Tom dies, and the Tree bursts into life, all of which serve to create their universe. In effect, the universe loops upon itself: Tom is both Last Man and First Father.

The quest
The search for eternal life is the quintessential human endeavor, cutting across all cultures and human pursuits. The Holy Grail. The Cure for Cancer. One is mystical, the other scientific. Yet they are fundamentally the same. Tomas starts off in the jungle, chasing the mystical and ends up in the laboratory, chasing the scientific. Yet his objective is the same in both cases: the Tree (more on this later).

The story could also be seen as one about the pursuit of greatness, about how lonely it is. Think about it. For a thousand years, Tomas/Tommy/Tom is largely alone. He only sees the one he loves here and there and then not at all. All his followers die in the jungle. The other researchers struggle to keep up with his breakneck pace. By the end, he is the Last Man. Everyone he ever knew is dead. And yet he presses on.

It is also a personal journey to confront our greatest fear: death. Despite all our scientific knowledge and religious beliefs, most people are still afraid to die when their time comes. Stripped of everything like Tom the space traveler, each person must come to terms with it alone. No one can do that for you.

Journey through names
You can follow the hero’s journey through the evolution of his name: Tomas, Tommy Creo, Tom. According to the New Testament, Thomas the Apostle doubts Jesus’ resurrection and demands extraordinary proof before believing it (aka Doubting Thomas). He then professes his faith and is sometimes called “Thomas the Believer.” In the film, Tomas the Conquistador is a follower of Isabella who accepts her mission but later, as Tommy Creo, has trouble accepting her death. This is ironic because “Creo” in Spanish means “I believe.” Confronted with extraordinary circumstances at the end, Tom the space traveler finally believes. With no fancy title or even a surname, he is simply a man now.

Thomas the Apostle is also believed to have traveled farther than any other Apostle. In the same way, Tom travels far from earth to another star.

The Tree
The Tree is a great symbol for this film. Not only does it have religious ties (Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden), but it also has scientific ties as well. Many of our medicines are derived from plants, which is why many scientists are so concerned with the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. So many plants there have yet to be discovered. What if the cure for cancer is there, and we unknowingly destroy it? Trees are the closest living things to immortality. Some species are known to live for more than a thousand years.

The conquistador
The West has a polarized view of the world. Black and white. Good and evil. Right and wrong. At first, the conquistador is religion, so self-righteousness that it is willing to kill all who oppose it. Now, the conquistador is science, whose determination to demystify the world and banish death borders on religious fervor. And yet how is the West so sure that there is only one right answer, one “proper” way to do things? Eastern thought is more circular, more accepting of plurality and ambiguity, and often dismissed by the West for such qualities. Is there no middle ground, no reconciliation? Such tension seems to permeate the film.

Time
The Fountain somehow distorts our perception of time. One of my favorite questions to first time viewers is, ‘How long do you think this film is?’ Most say 2 hours or more. It’s only 96 minutes, but it feels much longer. There are two possible reasons for this. First, having three storylines over a large timescale contributes to a feeling of ‘epicness.’ Second, the level of emotional intensity sustained throughout the film leaves many viewers rather spent by the end.

The wheel or circle
This is a very common symbol in Eastern thought. No beginning or end, everything is related, part of the same whole. Most people understand this idea already, so I’m just going to briefly point out some of its uses and appearances in the film.

  • Wheel of time – The entire story is a circle. Tom is both First Father and Last Man. He has presumably been reincarnated many times (circles within circles) until effectively becoming immortal at the end.
  • Cycle of life and death – Death begets life. Life leads to death. Without one, there is not the other. This is not just a religious idea; you can see it in science too, e.g. the carbon cycle, the forging of heavier elements through multiple stellar explosions.
  • Rings of time – A great scene shows how Tom the space traveler tracks time by tattooing himself with rings, like tree rings.
  • Concentric rings – Tom flies toward Xibalba, a seemingly endless series of concentric rings.
  • Spherical spaceship – A sphere is basically the 3D version of the circle.
  • The ring – The traditional symbol of endless love or commitment. Did you wonder why he loses the ring twice, once as a conquistador and once as a scientist? I could be wrong, but to me, it’s because he hadn’t quite earned it in both those instances. Only when he finally learns and accepts the real lesson does he get it back. And why does he get it back from the conquistador and not the scientist? You guessed it. It completes the wheel/circle.
  • Music – The music is minimalist, haunting, and insistently repeats the same themes in cycles.

Nice touches
Here are a few nice touches that people might have missed or dismissed offhand.

  • Progressive lighting – Did you notice how the film got lighter as the timeline progressed? As in dark (jungle), muted/neutral tones (laboratory), and brilliant (Xibalba). For those that criticized Xibalba for being too glittery, think about it for a minute: he is going into a dying star. Have you seen pictures from the Hubble telescope? If not, please google them. Stellar explosions are one of the most amazing spectacles in the universe. If anything, the visuals are understated when compared to the real thing.
  • Gold – The gold color was used because it symbolizes desire/obsession and fits particularly well with the Mayan/Spanish theme. It is also connected with “fool’s gold,” something that you covet but then realize is not what you wanted.
  • The star map – Most people don’t bother with the credit roll, but this one is sort of interesting. As you watch, you can see clumps of light start to appear over time in the background. This is in fact what scientists say happened after the Big Bang (look up WMAP to learn more). Matter began clumping together rather quickly and eventually became the galaxies we see today.

Conclusion – Hopefully you found this article helpful or interesting, and maybe you will consider giving The Fountain another chance. It is noteworthy that so many people have such a strong opinion about it, one way or another. The Fountain is a remarkable film that will continue to be talked about long after others are forgotten. I, for one, admire Aronofsky’s courage and persistence in getting it made.

Need more on your Road to Awe? Check out this video. It’s the best one I’ve seen so far.

And here is another.

141 thoughts on “The Fountain explained

  1. Insightful. I think you must be right about every detail you mentioned here. As far as I’m concerned, I enjoyed the style of the film. The high contrasts of dark/brownish textures and golden lightenings are so mesmerizing. Matthew Libatique is an amazing cinematographer.

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    1. Thanks, Aurélien. I’m glad that you enjoyed the film. I think it is very rich in both meaning and style. Every time I watch it, I find something else to appreciate. Once in awhile, I search the Internet to see if people have new/different things to say about “The Fountain.” I picked up a few more interesting insights from David Chen’s video essay. If you are looking for some ways to appreciate/ponder the film, have a look!

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  2. There was a comic adaptation that Darren created with a comic artist when he thought the film wasn’t going to be made due to budget reason. There are slight differences with the movie, but it gave a bit more details to the Conquistador and Spaceman eras. Basically the comic treats both periods as real events in Tommy’s cycles of lives, rather than possible fictitious accounts.

    Interestingly, in the last chapter Tom became an astronaut and ‘controls’ the bubble ship using mind control/meditation and has a mission to reignite life on Earth by bringing the Tree of Life to Xibalba so it can absorb the cosmic properties of a supernova.

    I too enjoyed the formation of the universe that is shown during the credit scene. And of course Clint Mansell’s music score complements the film and carries through its emotional context so well.

    Anyone notices how Tom the astronaut drinks the tree sap or eat the pieces of the tree trunk to extend his life at certain interval, and he does Taiji too? I love these little details that Aronofsky add to enrich the story.

    His latter movies have not reached the same level of aesthetic imho. Although I particularly liked one scene from Noah – when Methuselah wields the flaming sword to destroy the human horde. That was bad ass.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Akira. I agree about Aronofsky’s later movies. He continues to explore his “obsession with obsession” but for me, they don’t elevate to the same level as “The Fountain.” I haven’t seen “Noah” yet, but that scene you mentioned did catch my eye from the previews.

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  4. Hands down The Fountain is Aronofsky’s most beautifully misunderstood & unappreciated film work to date…that said its my favorite of all his pieces. Not to get all gooey but its something I always have to walk away from with a massive sense of nausea. It just kills me. The closure of each time span & story guts me on so many levels. The climax for Tommy & Izzie at the hospital, along with the bathtub dunk are probably two of the biggest stand out emotional scenes for me in any film to date. Coupled with the First Father & Last Man bits…I can’t see or understand much of the widespread distaste this one garnered.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Jarvis. “The Fountain” is hauntingly beautiful, and I’m glad that it touches you on a deeper level. I suspected that many critics get the basic story but either missed out on the finer touches or are unmoved by them. I can’t convince anyone to like the film if they are set on disliking it, but with this article, I hoped to at least help some people understand it better.

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  5. My interpretation is more linear, but more colorful, LOL. But I never finished the comic, so I don`t know how correct it is.

    Im my opinion that part of the storyline with the Conquistador and the queen is fictional, created by Izzy as a way of coping with her incoming death. She was inspired by her relationship with Thomas, by mayan mithology and the mayan guide`s tale about his father. Thinking of death as natural and “the start of a new life” was her way to make peace with her fate — as we can see in her musings about Xibalba and her wish to be buried in a farm (and become a tree, fly with a bird, etc).

    So, after she dies, Thomas plants a seed to fulfill her last wishes and goes on with his research, now obsessed to “cure death”. He never finishes Izzy`s book (the last scene she wrote is the conquistador getting killed by the mayan priest)

    Years later, Thomas` research is successful. He beats death, goes on living for centuries and achieves enlightment (or something like that). He becomes Tommy the “spaceman”, some kind of monk with mind powers, capable of levitating and travelling in space by himself. That is implied by the fact that he still has his ring tattoo (and a lot of new others). I consider a nice touch by Aronofsky that the script left open what happened to the rest of the world: is Tommy the last one? Did his research also benefit the rest of mankind? But I digress.

    We can see that, despite having gone all shaolin, lama and such, Thomas still obsesses about his love and about conquering death. So he goes on a journey to Xibalba with what remains of Izzy: the tree that grew over her grave (in which, according to her mayan inspired beliefs, she still lived).

    His seemingly long trip is haunted by memories of Izzy. After his long period of reflection and pain, he reaches an epiphany when Izzy (the tree) dies just before reaching Xibalba (once more, when he was just about to be able to “cure” her). So he learns to see death as she did, and embraces the futility of fighting it.

    The last minute “twists” to the other storylines are Thomas applying this brand new perspective in his memories of his life. What would it be like if he stopped his futile battle with death and just went for a walk with her? What If he let go his obsession with keeping Izzy alive and focused on cherishing his shortening time with her? What if he just finished her book?

    So the last “chapter” of the conquistador story is written by the “new” Thomas, the one who sees death as the start of new life and that fighting it is pointless. We can tell that because what stops the shaman from killing Tomás is seeing the death-fighting-warrior turned into Tommy. the levitating buddah. So he kills the shaman, finds the tree and prevails (by dying and giving birth to new life). As does Tommy in the future by entering Xibalba.

    One last touch: Izzy at some time mentions a trip to Central America, and Queen Isabella from her tale mentions the tree of life being in “new spain”. Then, in the end of the movie, we see Izzy taking a seed from a tree and giving it to Thomas. I think that hapenned in her trip, and that seed was the sample Thomas studied in his lab… From which he took the serum that cured the Donovan`s tumor and which was the basis of his research (which, in my interpretation, was successful). I take that from the fact that he mentions the sample was from Central America. I also suppose it`s the same seed he plants on her grave and sprouts into the tree he takes in his trip.

    So… A highly convoluted movie, full of intrincated stories within stories. One of the best I`ve seen. Sorry for the long post.

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    1. No need to apologize, hvfp! It’s clear that you put a lot of thought into this analysis. Thanks for sharing it with us. I was wondering how the ring fits in your interpretation. If the conquistador story is fiction, then how did Space Tom get his ring back in the end? Or maybe it was just his imagination?

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  6. I just wanted to ask if anyone thought that Tommy was in purgatory in the bubble on his way to Xibalba after death because of not wanting to not only let go of Izzy but wanting to cheat death and not let go of life???

    I’m still trying to figure it all out LOL

    Maybe purgatory might be too harsh but the space between life, death, and the answers to the universe

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    1. Hi Benny, I didn’t see any evidence that Tommy ever died. You could say that he was in between life and death on his way to the star, and he ultimately chooses/accepts death.

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  7. The “fountain” and the “honey dew” that springs forth from the fountain in essoteric circles refers to your pineal gland. Once you activate your pineal gland the fountain overflows and you go into the spirit world. Esoteric teachers believe that once you open up these fountains and go into the spirit world that you will have everlasting life and that in fact you will become a star quite literally. These are not my ideas by the way, they’re merely the philosophy of esoteric teachers. With this knowledge I think it will become apparent what this movie is really about. It’s about becoming immortal and also becoming a star quite literally. This is why many don’t understand. If you would like to learn more about this, please refer to the writings of HP Blavatsky or Manly P Hall. God bless every single one of you…

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    1. Your very welcome Justarius :-) I would like to add a couple of other things if thats okay…
      First off it was apparent to me that the reason why his first incarnation in the Middle Ages was not able to successfully complete the ring was because he used violence. He was violent when he was trying to overtake the enemies of Spain and he was also violent against the tree by piercing the dager into the tree and twisting it violently in order to get the “the milk of paradise”. In the future he loves the tree, respects it, and eventually obtains imortality. I would also like to add that just in case anybody was uncertain if it was about the pineal gland and taking certain substances inorder to to get to the spirit world, please watch the movie again and look for the zoom in between his eyes to imply that he is going into the spirit world (just like before the flashbacks he always takes a piece of the bark of the tree. This is clearly dimethyltryptamine or mimosas hostilis bark). Also please notice that this movie is actually one big voyage into the spirit world from his future self. When the future Tom takes some bark off of the tree and uses it to have spiritual experiences he is actually going over his past in vivid hulicinations. It is through this reflecting of the past that he comes to the conclusion that he has been fearful and that his girlfriend/soul mate has been helping along the way by showing him that there is nothing to fear. Also, please notice that when he is looking at her grave at the end he looks up in the sky and sees the nebula and its much brighter. I believe this implies that because she had no fear that she had gone to the nebula to be reborn as a new star just as he was at the very end. Thats all I wanted to say. God bless…

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  8. I love all the insights here, I just wanted to add to something sort of mentioned a little above but I would like to expand. There are these scenes where Darren draws a connection between the hair on the nape of Izzy’s neck with the hair on the tree bark. I feel that this implies that the “eternal life” springs from the well of his love for Izzy, but Tom fails to see this and instead, because of his need to “save her”, he begins to consume her. Each time he takes a piece of bark his physical body is being extended but he is losing(consuming) his love for Izzy. He in some way becomes addicted to this consumption, and in so doing, isolates himself from her and becomes unable to experience his real love. Indirectly her repeated death throughout time, is a result of his need to take control of their destiny(really he can only control his own), but she keeps falling through the cracks(of time).This implies that loves true state is within the cyclical birth/death cycle and can only truelly be experienced in that state. It’s only REALLY love when its burning bright and burning up like a star. Therefore, eternal life becomes a mirage without meaning, only a form of eternal isolation and comes at the cost of separating oneself from all others. There are other types of stories which touch on this subconsious assumption, such as many stories of vampires, though in this case I think there is a more healthy helping of mythical refinement. Either way, when he finally accepts the wisdom of the tree, that death cannot be postponed without such sacrifice, he eventually gives in, accepts her love wholey and their isolation from each other is destroyed, exploding into the birth of the garden of eden, complete with a new tree of duality.

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  9. my interpretation was……

    that for several lifetimes Tom felt as if he kept failing Izzy. It seems that his soul would refuse to accept her death, time and time again and entrapping him in that guilty state of consciousness.

    He was soo caught up on the physical plane; even becoming a doctor to try and cheat his wife’s physical death with no avail….therefore he was stuck in a mental state of guilt and angst which did not allow his soul to grow.

    Through some sort of consolidated multiple lifetimes review he was able to finally see through (MOMENTS) in each lifetime…(moments in time being a recurring theme)…he finally became aware of the truth through enlightment and was able to come out of that dark place his consciousness wouldn’t allow him to move past from; and he was finally able to join his forever love in light…(morning light as she opened the doors for him while he was on his kness as as conquistador and light coming through windows and doors being another theme)

    That entire time she was coming in and out while he was by the dying tree; was her soul trying to help him get out of that state of blocked consciousness so that they could truly be together forever with no more separations because he was able to conquer the fear of losing her to death.

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  10. One theme I picked up on was the Yin Yang symbolism in the museum. When Tommy (present) Wakes up one morning and realizes Izzy has gone to the museum to check out the Mayan artifacts, Izzy is dressed in all white and Tommy is dressed in all black.

    When Izzy faints she falls in the overly bright circle and Tommy follows thus representing the Yin Yang symbol which is a representation of interdependence, eternity and contrary forces. Which if you ask me Thomas/Tommy/Tom throughout the film is a more brash, impulsive, foolish, chance taking person but more important not as connected spiritually as Izabel/Izzy. Tom would represent the Yin (black). Izzy in this scene is dressed in white and represents Yang being more associated with light, fire, life, sun, upward seeking and is clearly more in tune with her spirit, spirituality and higher knowledge.

    I thought Free Will and Determinism were key themes throughout the whole movie too. But that’s in another write up!

    I will certainly be watching this again and perhaps reading the source material.

    A big salute to creative geniuses behind it all.

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  11. Man you just cleared my confusion! Thanks a lot! I was just looking for the tree of life life part but you covered a lot of things over here. Nice observer you are. Keep it up. Thanks a lot again.

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  12. I loved this movie, I did not understand it completely but got it for the most part mostly due understanding of the beautiful philosophy that movie is trying to project. your explanation was quite good. I think its a remarkable movie !!

    I am still confused as to why the tree gets life in the end upon reaching to Xibalba but Tom dies .. is it to complete the circle life after death and death after life?

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    1. I’m glad that you found this article useful, Donnie and Geetika. Yes, I believe the ending is about the life and death cycle. Tom’s death + energy from the dying star = a new life.

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  13. Wow! What an awesome article and equally awesome array of comments to follow… With every one I read I found a new way of looking at the film and was continually thrown from perspective to perspective. These explanations are all plausible, so its hard to pick just one. Makes me love this film even more. The first time I saw The Fountain I didn’t invest too much of my focus into finding and mapping out the exact meaning, and rather just let it all unfold and it was an equally beautiful experience. This film moved me, and thats all I ever ask for from a movie. Definitely one you can watch time and time again. I was going to try to map out my theory for what I believe is an explanation to the movie and what I think happens, but I’ve realised there are far too many doors still open. The sheer epicness of this movie is nearly indescribable. Definitely one of my favourites, despite and especially thanks to the fact that I still don’t -and probably never will- fully understand it. This is a puzzle I am willing to spend years trying to figure out, and years it may take! Ha ha! Thanks for the article and all the following interpretations. Truly a mind expander.. And hugely underrated. Which ultimately is understandable considering just how thought-provoking it is, and how much thought the general population seem to be comfortable with engaging in. Look forward to reading more interpretations here in the future! What. A. FILM. Thanks everyone!

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  14. I just finished watching the movie for the first time and I know what the “missing piece” of the plot is… It’s the story of a man who went schizophrenic after his wife’s death, and spent the rest of his life falling deeper into the isolation, tearing the space-time continuum in his own mind, portals, multiple personalities in different time periods… All with an illusion of grandeur or some great quest that means the whole world… I think that the scenes of him with his girl in the modern day are obviously reality, but then the missing link is that after she died, he went insane from the trauma because he felt it was all his fault, and he went insane, developing new portals for his mind to wander down, new quests that all seem to kinda blend together in this weird trippy way right… It’s about a man who went schizo…

    I knew a homeless man who lived near my neighborhood growing up. When he was young he was married and a successful musician, but when his wife died he lost his sanity from the trauma, the switch got flipped and he went schizo. And ol Robert probably felt like he was busting missions like the ones in this movie all day… Poor ol guy. I’m just sayin, all I could think about at the end of the movie when the stories come together, is poor ol robert, gone crazy from his wife’s death… Cause I’ve seen it.

    But I do think the metaphor of the movie is… You can only truly drink from the fountain of life when you can accept death, without fearing it. And after all… If he had never feared death so much, he wouldn’t have had to be so traumatized by his wife’s death, because he would have understood what death means… That death is giving your soul back to the mother, to keep the life force regenerating, turning the old into the new… Death makes your spirit feel like a golden beam of light bursting into supernovas that turn into entire galaxies, just like that trippy scene there toward the end…
    And yes I KNOW this is the exact meaning of the movie. ;)

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  15. this film changed my life..and before that, i found films and going to the cinema a complete waste of time. i have seen it more than twenty times(no joke) by now and every time i notice something new..yet my feelings after seeing it are as strong as he first time i left the cinema..great article .thank you so much!

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  16. I did not read all comments, but did anyone say something about the very last seconds of the movie. I thing they are the most important one.
    They finally left the circle.

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  17. I disagree. “Old” Thomas, as you call him, didn’t fail, he received eternal life by being the foundation of new life. Aka the flowers that grew out of him. That’s the whole point; out of death comes life. Also, I don’t think there’s a past, present and future here. What you call past and future are actually symbolic. The past story was a way of Rachel Weisz to make Thomas deal with her death, not cure her. And the “future” story is also symbolic – why the hell would we be able to drift inside a glass sphere with strange looking trees in the future? It’s all symbolic, folks, that’s why it’s so beautifully done.

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  18. I love your explanation of The Fountain and I agree with it. You pointed out things I hadn’t noticed in the film. But there’s also much more to explore about literary alchemy in this film. The entire film hinges on the concept of alchemy. I love how your explanation and the alchemical process of the story go so well together.

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    1. Thank you, Em. Kim, your interpretation is similar to that of other commentators. It is certainly valid, although for me, the film would lose some of its depth.

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  19. Thanks for writing this up. Great summary of some key themes and ideas. Another thing to add to your section about lighting- notice when Tommy is running down the street and there are welding sparks flying above his head. This seems to foreshadow his approach to Xibalba :)

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  20. There’s a lot of good observation here. I’d like to add a few things people may not consider. Please bear with me as the symbols of this movie are quite literally circular and it’s difficult to arrange them linearly.

    I’ll refer to all the “Tom” characters simply as Tom and “Izzy” characters simply as Izzy for simplicity. Now, Let me try to illustrate just how intricate and well though out some of the symbols are:

    The choice of the star (Xibalba) is a good one for a symbol of eternal life and cycles of life. Firstly, stars / solar systems are themselves eternally re-created. A star eventually either implodes (black hole) or explodes (nova) but eventually reverts to a diffuse mass of material that, under the influence of gravity, will become a star / solar system. In fact, life on earth wouldn’t exist the way it does without the heavy elements that can only be created in a supernova (like Xibalba). Secondly, through the whole of human history our we have created myths which illustrate the seasonal cycle of life / death and the corresponding change in the apparent position of the stars around us. The even subdivision of the year into cycles of the moon begets the 12 part zodiac that is now inextricable from human culture as a map of birth / death and the cyclic nature of life.

    Now here are some examples of visual themes repeated to tie the story elements together:

    Tom riding the horse / driving his car are shot in the same manner.

    Floating candles in queen’s chamber are visually analogous to the stars/motes in the void during shots of Tom and the emerging stars at the end of the movie.

    The downward view of Izzy in the throne room and in the hospital reveal the same floor. It is a radially symmetric subdivided circle like the zodiac. The “rule of threes” applies to these shots, in fact most blocking / cinematography in this film relies on elements of classical painting to achieve the finished scenes. This is possibly a choice to tie the movie to the graphic novel, but either way it’s great to look at.

    The symbol of the zodiac as the path from birth to death and rebirth is seen again in that there are 12 chapters in Izzy’s book. The last chapter is the one where the story ends/starts over.

    The recursive nature of using what is essentially a star chart as a symbol of life and death, and a specific star as both the place of death and the source of life makes my head swim. It sets up the idea of concentric circles in time, while concentric circles are a visual theme repeated in the film.

    I could go on about other repeated shots/themes/colors but I think you get the picture. The film successfully uses universal themes and symbols to get most of its point across visually.

    Just thinking about this movie is exhausting. I love it.

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  21. My interpretation is that the past and future storylines are the last chapter of izzi’s book finished by Tom. I believe that izzi left the book for tom to help him come to terms with her death. I think he finally comes to terms with it and writes the final chapter in the spirit that she took her impending death and that there is no cheating death and they would be together forever because of there love for each other. I believe the scene where tom follows izzi for the walk instead of operating is a metaphor for him finally accepting her death and that he couldn’t save her and finally letting go of the pain. And placing the piece of the tree in her grave and smiling at the end was him being thankful for the book and understanding he can finally be happy, knowing thats what she wanted for him.

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    1. Darren Aronofsky made the film as a symbol of Alchemy (as well as the graphic novel). Hugh Jackman has also gone into depth about the alchemy behind the film in interviews, which he also feels strongly about.

      The idea behind Alchemy is that all is one (As above, so below). We aren’t separate from each other or the universe but our egos lead us to believe that we’re separate from one another and that the only way to become one with the universe is to die (real death as symbol for the death of the ego) in order to become a part of something bigger, to recognize that we’re all connected.
      It takes a lot of study to know all of the nuances of the Alchemical process but pretty much every little thing in The Fountain down to what color clothing they’re wearing and what color rooms they’re in is symbolic of the Alchemical process.

      Some of the concepts of Alchemy symbolized in The Fountain are:

      1. dualities/polarities – Tom wears all black. Izzy wears all white. As the film (and the alchemical process go on, Izzy stops being able to feel polarities like hot and cold and she mentions different in every moment- this is because she’s going through a process of change from ego to union with all.
      Another example of this is when Tom is in the lab and has the idea to use the tree on Donovan the chimp and describes it as “like male and female”- the masculine and feminine are huge symbols of polarity in Alchemy.

      2. Death of the ego to become one with the universe again – “death is the road to awe”… “will you deliver Spain from bondage?” (What Izzy is really asking is will Tom let her die so that she can be free of the bondage of her ego and the idea that she’s seperate in order to find the road to awe by becoming one with the universe) Izzy’s real death in The Fountain is symbolic of the death of the ego.

      3. recognition that all is one (as above, so below) – Izzy talks a lot about how the Mayan father became a tree, which the birds ate fromand flew away with. The body was gone- his ego and individuality was gone. He became part of the world/universe when he died. Tom later plants a tree on her grave.

      4. Nigredo, Albedo, Rubedo – Tom wears all black to symbolize the nigredo but Izzy wears all white to symbolize the Albedo. The only time we see red in the film (Rubedo) is in Tom’s memories of Izzy when she was healthy.

      5. finding the philosopher’s stone/fountain of life/tree of life/gold (it’s even in the name of the film… which explains why the film is called the fountain when there is no real fountain in it) This is also why trees feature so prominently in the film, particularly the tree of life that Tomas seeks for the queen, the tree of like that Tom in the lab uses to try and find a cure for Izzy, and the tree in space that Tom tries to keep alive forever. Alchemists always knew that it was impossible to literally turn lead to gold. But that was the point. By attempting to turn lead to gold (symbolic of attempting to physically live forever), you deprive yourself of the real gold- of becoming one with the universe- the road to awe The awe that Izzy told Tom to let her go to by accepting death. This is why Izzy in space tells him everything dies… he fights it because he’s scared of death but then he smiles and says “I’m going to die” and sees it for the road to awe that it is (being reunited with everything, including Izzy.)
      Every time Tom chases physical immortality he he fails and is miserable. Tomas is eaten up by the earth, Dr. Creo fails as keeping Izzy alive and misses out on the last time he could have spent with her, and Tom in space fails to deliver the tree fast enough to keep it alive. He chased physical immortality, fighting death (death of the ego) and only found unhappiness and realization that it was impossible. But in the end of the movie he finally realizes that it’s only in death that you can live forever as part of the universe and is finally happy.

      6. Gold – The last section of the film where Tom is in space with the tree going to the gold exploding star that the Mayans considered their afterlife is entirely gold. Queen Isabella is also in gold when she asks Tomas to deliver Spain from bondage. Alchemists practiced literal alchemy in with the goal of turning lead to gold. The gold is also symbolized by the fountain of life, the elixir of immortality, the philosopher’s stone. There are many names for it but they all symbolize the attainment of one’s higher self by dying to the ego in order to recognize that we are all one and that separation is an illusion.

      7. White – the white stage in alchemy occurs after the death of the ego. It’s when the dualities begin to reunite with one another and become something better. As I mentioned, Izzy wears all white as she starts to accept her own mortality. The lily flower has always been a symbol of this white stage. This is why the character named Lily is the one who comforts Izzy in the hospital and tries to get Tom to accept her impending death. This is also why a lot of the scenes are covered in snow.

      I haven’t even scratched the surface of how many ways The Fountain symbolizes alchemy but I just realized how long this post is lol

      As far as timeline goes, I thing Dr/ Creo and sick Izzy are real, and that Tomas and Queen Isabella are the alchemical story that Izzy wrote and told Tom to finish (she was symbolically telling him to finish the painful alchemical process in order to find happiness). Space Tom is the last chapter of Izzy’s book that Tom finally finished.

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  22. I also believe the final chapter was Tom showing his journey to finally accepting his wife death and over coming his grief. I wanted to add I absolutely loved the film and find it very underrated.

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  23. The Fountain is a movie I have only seen recently but it is by far the most wonderful and magical one I have ever witnessed. I do love everyone’s interpretations too and I think it’s great that a movie has brought a lot of people together to share their own ideas about it, so I thought I’d share some of mine.

    The book itself plays a very important role in the movie which I feel many have overlooked. Izzy has already accepted that she will die but she knows that Tommy refuses to let her die and even states that “Death is a disease.” and that he will cure it. He is unable to accept death as he sees it as accepting defeat and that he will fail Izzy by doing so. Tommy, in all his lives, has been trying to save Izzy but she knows that it is actually him who needs to be saved.

    She begins to write the book, The Fountain, detailing their journey through time but she never intended to finish it. When she tells Tommy about Xibalba being including in her book he retorts with “I thought it’s a place a Spain.” To which she replies with. “Starts there, ends there.” as she looks up at Xibalba, the underworld, the place where the dead reside. That is where Tommy must go to accept death and finish the book.

    The book exists so that Tommy can come to terms with accepting death, throughout the movie he does not know how to finish the book and at first it sounds as if he simply does not know how to write the end book because he was not the author, how could he possibly know the end to a story he did not write?

    Tom realises what the book truly means, and he is driven by the hallucinations of Izzy that constantly tell him to “Finish it.” to write the rest of the book so that he may finally accept death. The first time we see Tom he has failed to maintain the vision of his past as the conquistador and is also unable to maintain the vision of his past with Izzy, where we see him still dressed as Tom even though he is in the past, he wants to be able to accept death but he does not know how and so the vision breaks prematurely and he returns to the reality in his ship.

    Tom tells the visions of Izzy that he does not know how he can finish it, he can’t accept death. But the visions are blunt with their message and state “You do, you will.” Death is something that will come to all of us, even if it is only in our last moments we must all accept death eventually.

    As they reach Xibalba Tom still does not know how he can accept death, he lashes out at the hallucination of Izzy and just before he falls to his knees he barely utters “I’m afraid.” no matter how hard he tries he can not accept death, not for him nor Izzy. The hallucinations then remind Tom of the past they shared together, and I can not ignore the beautiful quote from a few scenes before this moment, “All these years, all these memories, there was you. You pull me through time.” The visions of Izzy allow Tom to realise that they have lived their lives, fulfilling lives filled with happiness and sadness than span across millennia but ultimately they enjoyed their lives and it is now time to finish them.

    One last time Tom goes into the visions of the past, determined to finish it and he concludes them both successfully. The conquistador does not die to the mayan and travels into the light and towards the tree of life where he meets his end, the Doctor abandons the surgery travels into the light and goes on the walk with Izzy. The stories end, Tom achieves the ring so that he may live forever with Izzy and shortly after Xibalba explodes and Tom dies, completing his journey.

    The movie ends with Tommy holding a seed which he presumably was given by Izzy on their walk, he buries it in her grave. Although he is teary he is finally able to say honestly “Bye, Izzy.” With that it is confirmed that he has finally accepted death and The Fountain, both the book and the movie, end.

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  24. Pingback: Anonymous
  25. I first saw The Fountain when it premiered (2006). Loved it then, but ultimately forgot about the movie as life drove on, college, grad school, career…

    A few days ago, while driving home, “The Last Man” came on my Pandora station Massive Attack (if you don’t have it, add it). When hearing this song I felt all the same emotions I can remember feeling nearly 10 years prior when I first saw the movie.

    Shortly thereafter, I watched the movie with my fiancé (who had never heard of the movie). Needless to say, she fell asleep (I know, super lame). She definitely sees the movie as one of the harsher critics out there. Which in the end is fine, opposites do atract as they say.

    Sorry to get caught up in the back story, but it is necessary for the point I am about to attempt to make…

    The Fountain is an amazing movie, not because of the multiple interpretations one can draw. It is amazing because no matter how much we become consumed with our lives; the overall artwork of the Fountain is timeless. The visual beuty and auditory illusions I experience with this film will always be with me. And whenever I hear a sound or see an image that reminds me of the movie. I have a flash back to my experiences watching The Fountain. A movie that can evoke such emotion that it’s viewers become hypnotized by its beuty, is truly “amazing”.

    I know I probably sound like some burn out, just wanted to share my love for this amazing movie. Cheers!

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  26. The Fountain is a magical film. It is most wonderful and and jewel-like. I do not understand why anyone seeing it would have any problem understanding its many meanings. It is a deeply moving film. I never grow tired of watching this amazing film. As beautiful as it is it should have won many awards.

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  27. Fountain is not about finding the cure for cancer, Fountain is the cure for cancer itself.

    Watching this movie will overflow you woth emotions and the feeling of acceptance and harmony harmonizes your own cells that they can cure everything

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  28. Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this article. I’m here watching The Fountain for probably the thousandth time and I’m going, “This movie is still one of my absolute favorite things. Ever.” Which of course led to, “why am I the only person who gets this?!”… Followed by the google search to find fellow weirdos… which led me here… and what a pleasure it is. You really see what I see. Finally.

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  29. I also wanted to point out one of my favorite ah-ha moments in the story… Tomas the Conquistador goes to the private audience with the Queen… knelt before her, crying… she asks him why, he explains how the Inquisitors threat bothers him (in the same exact way as the cancer), he feels he has failed her… she explains that killing the inquisitor/brainstem tumor would be “suicide” that Europe would ‘have her head’ and then this… “I, for one, am not ready to die yet, are you? He answers that he would die for Spain and she has this moment where she catches the conviction in his voice, she hears him utter the very key, but she can’t just tell him, he must come to it on his own in order to fully release himself to it. That look, that pause and catch of breath on the heels of that one sentence. .. “i know, Conquistador, I know. And this bravery of yours, it may save us yet… for Spain has a plan…there is hope…”

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  30. Tommy saw an old man wearing ring just before when Izzie gonna die. What does that signifies? And also Tommy tattooed his finger with the pen in shape of the ring and in future scene he was tattooed all over his hands. What does that means. Btw thanks for a wonderful article.

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    1. I see the old man dying in the hospital to be Tommy looking at the man, knowing he will die soon, and associating the old man with the futility of trying to cheat death. The ring symbolizes both the complete cycle of life and death, but also makes the old man symbolize Tommy because they both have rings.

      The ring Tommy tattoos on his finger evolves into a full sleeve tattoo over a long, long time. The rings on his arm symbolize time passing (they’re meant to look like the rings of a tree which are a measure of time, which is also a symbol in the movie (the tree of life, and is also used as a motif to symbolize Izzy- there are shots comparing her skin to the bark of the tree and when the tree dies, Tommy is so upset because the tree is Izzy to him, the seed he planted after she died.)

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      1. Thank you, Naveen, and to Sarah for her great answer. I just wanted to add one small thing. The old man reminds Tommy that he lost his ring, symbolizing his love. That’s the immediate reason why he tattoos his finger. As the years pass, the tattoos become rings of time, just like tree rings. But trees grow with every new ring; Tommy does not. Actually the tattoo rings shackle his spirit. He is dead inside. Only when he lets go of his immortality does he truly live, regaining his wedding ring.

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  31. I really dont get that how he can get inside the book which is he thinking the end of it. I am talking about the scene that Mayan Priest see a vision of him. I mean the vision is real but the place that the event is happening is just a book. How can he get inside something that he is thinking,something that havent happened in real . (I dont know english much but if you get what ım trying to say , please answer, ım searching the answer of this for 2 days and sorry for asking this after 5 years)

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    1. Hi Ceasar, the simplest explanation is that the book events are real. They are of Tom’s previous life as a conquistador. As Tom nears the star, he accepts death as a part of life. Time collapses and loops upon itself. This is how he appears to the Mayan priest. Some other people say that the entire story after Izzy dies is in Tom’s head or that it is the ending that he writes to the book. Take your pick. All these possibilities could work. Hope this helps.

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      1. Thanks a lot , I think I’ll pick the first one . And that means it’s about reincarnation or something like it.But did she know that it’s real or is it just a coincidence?

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      2. Either way works. Izzie becomes enlightened first and she tries to reach Tommy by writing her book. I like to think she remembered her past life, but she could have also unconsciously written a story that was their origin story.

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  32. @Alexander X, I don’t if u will see this, and I know it’s not a subject, but I am curious did u stay with your fiance? I deeply find myself in your comment about impression that u share with your close one.
    The film is about deep, complicated subject that matters all of us, and was showed in magical way. Depends on what kind of person u are, u can get it in a lot of ways. But it’s all there. It is about love, but also about letting go, accepting death in a way that we are not use to It. About parallel worlds or reincarnation (depends how u look), about how life works and whole universe, about contrast…. In one sentence : one of that movies that leaves u inspired.

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  33. In my opinion “The Fountain” is more about two trees – the tree of knowledge and The tree of life. And it say how Tommy is trying to find the Tree of life (immortality), but can’t see that in real the immortality was just before him, when he decided not to not go to the laboratory and do the operation, but to go to Izzy. So basically it tells that people sometimes rely on tree of knowledge and forget the tree of life. About the cycles, I pretty much agree, but there is another meaning to the ring. The ring represents connection, and when Tommy lost the ring he lost the connection with Izzy. But I think the rest of it is right.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your insight, Ashot. As for the old man, he is either a random old guy that just reminds Tommy of death and that he is missing his ring, or he’s the old Tommy (if you believe that most of the movie is in his head). If you scroll through the comments, someone elaborated on this theory.

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  34. The tree in the spaceship is not the tree Tommy plants over Izzy’s grave. This is one of the most fundamental misreadings of the movie. In the final scene, the camerawork emphasizes that Tommy is still wearing the ring – that is, he did not choose to operate on Donovan (when he loses the ring) and goes on a walk with Izzy instead. So this final scene is entirely disjoint from the main storyline where he loses the ring, but finds the cure to death, prolongs his own life, and persists Izzy in tree-form.

    When spaceship Tommy finally accepts death and explodes, he is taken back to that pivotal moment of decision. Crucial to understanding the movie is recognizing that when Tommy chooses to walk with Izzy instead of pursuing “the cure to death”, that is his ultimate acknowledgement of finitude as what imbues life and love with the utmost meaning. So the seed Tommy plants in the end is just a seed – not Izzy, not a Tree of Life – just a normal seed that Izzy gives him on their last walk together.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Gary. I think it is definitely fitting. Just to clarify, are you saying that the space tree was never Izzy (it’s just the tree from the Amazon and Tom just imagines it as Izzy)? Or he did persist Izzy as a tree in the main story (presumably by planting a Tree of Life seed on her grave) and then gets transported back after the explosion to redo that decision. This time he chooses to walk with Izzy and plants a regular seed. I feel like it’s the second option, but just want to clarify for the readers.

      This sort of reminds me of “The Devil’s Advocate” where [spoiler warning] Keanu rejects the Devil’s deal in the end and gets transported back to a pivotal decision. This time he chooses his wife over winning.

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      1. Yes – the second is what I meant. I think it’s open to interpretation how he gets back to that point, and which of the forks actually takes place versus being a projection of its implications. I do think it’s made clear through close-up shots of Tommy’s hand that the seed sequence at the end of the film is a different narrative (and thematic) thread from the one where he chooses to try to make Izzy live forever through the tree.

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  35. I always saw the ending scene like some kind of Hessian Magic Theatre (if anyone has read The Steppenwolf, they’ll know what I’m talking about).

    All timelines and realities collide – the fictional past, the realistic present (now a distant past itself), the psychedelic future. In that moment, when Tom meets Xibalba, it doesn’t matter if something is real or not – it’s supposed to be a point beyond logic and science anyway.

    In the end, by Tom accepting death and enlightenment, the star explodes, and he is reborn again in all his personas. We might be grasping a glimpse into Tom’s mind as he cleanses himself by the burden of the past few hundred years (or how many years he has been travelling, alone with his memories of his dying wife), or we might be witnessing a psychedelic, time and space altering instance, translated to our comprehending by Aronofsky. One case or another, it is one of the best scenes in all cinema history.

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  36. Thank you so much for this article! I’ve just recently come to know about this film. In the past four days I’ve watched it 4 times. Every time I gain insight into something new. And every time it had me either geeking out, or crying, or both.
    Just wanted to give my two cents into the discussion, and a revelation I had about the wedding ring. I feel that he loses it the first two times because he uses the tree for a form of personal gain and does so against its will, and against the circle of life. He only takes but fails to give. Only when he completely surrenders/gives himself to the tree (or Izzy, however you want to look at it, for me she is both), by accepting his death (and with it giving new life, remember Izzy saying ‘death as an act of creation’) he regains the ring back.

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  37. Oh something I forgot to add in my previous comment: during the journey to Xibalba, he is actually still taking from the Tree by eating small pieces of it. To me, it’s why it dies: he still did not understand he took but didn’t give.

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  38. Oh wow!! I’m so glad to have found this. I saw this movie for the first time when I was 13/14 and it has been etched in my mind since then, it comes to mind constantly. Seeing this a an adult still made me wonder but you all helped tie the ends together for me. The music, the visuals and the pain resonated so deeply for me even as a young teen.
    I loved Gary’s response where he reminded us that the tree that he planted is different from the original tree of life. I remember him drinking the milk from the tree and ultimately becoming a patch of flowers (life). That part is still confusing to me. When we see future Tom, he is now eating the tree as it has dried. He is holding on and can not let it be. I don’t think we ever see Izzi’s tree as it is part of Tommys second decision (to not chase the cure and follow Izzi outside). What do you think?

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    1. I’m glad you found this article useful. Conquistador dies because he tried to take the tree’s milk by force. He is “not ready/worthy”. Future Tom either planted the tree on Izzy’s grave or dug up the tree from the jungle. Either way, in his mind, it’s Izzy. After Tom explodes in the supernova, he is sent back in time, and this time he chooses to walk with Izzy. The seed he plants on her grave then is just a regular seed he picked up on the walk. This is my current working explanation, at any rate.

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  39. This is my second time watching the film. I really enjoyed all the comments and theories in this section. I believe that at the end they both become trees. When they are in the museum before she collapses she tells him the story of the Mayan book that the tree grew from his stomach that he sacrificed himself for earth. When the conquistador dies his stomach has the wound and he puts the sap on his wound then he sees his wound heal then that’s where the roots to start to grow and it creates the tree. Since he is next to the tree. She and him will be connected to the roots and live forever together. The ring falls and to me the ring signifies the circle of life. Their life was complete. Beautiful film.

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  40. The map of Spain that shows the area where the Inquisitor is taking control is the same shape as Izzy’s head and the cancer in her brain is spreading just as cancer (Inquisitor) is spreading in Spain.

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  41. Hey, today i watched this movie for the first time also. I liked it a lot all the explanations. I agrre with them. I would add also about fear factor with xibalba. Izzy says to him, im not afraid before she dies, and xibalba means by wikipedia “place of fear”. When she tells him to finish it, he says im afraid, and only after he is not afraid anymore, he reach xibalba. If we look on our lifes we have fear all around us, and when we are coming from place of fear we lose connection (ring, Izzy gave him this ring to remind it on her). When he was scientist he was obssesed with death and wanted to find the cure and he lost connection with her (he lost ring). When he was Inquisitor he was obssesed with life – imortality and again he lost ring. The same like black and white theme which is shown in movie (jing-jang, but balance is in the middle when you accept both and not fight against it, the same as good vs bad). When he finnaly stops following three of knowlege out of fear (our ego, mind) and accept three of life, this is acceptance, love (Izzy meant love to him), he gain his connection back with her and accept life, gains his ring and expirienence freedom and with that he can create new universe and becomes creator. Thats mine interpretation i would add beside:) sorry for mistakes, english is not my native language:)

    P.s. If somebody is exploring also about symbols meanings. Did anyone also noticed a lot of iluminati symbols, the pyiramids and sun he was bowing, triangle in knife and when he was meditating he had lizzard eyes, that was intresting to see. Also went reaserching about mayas and xibalba, and i found out they were really afraid of underground gods, maybe refering to reptile god rules etc. would have to research more about it:)

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  42. I think the Conquistador is her book, Thomas Creo is the real them and Tom is how he finishes the book, it’s just a story.

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  43. I did watch this movie today for the first time, I must confess I was attracted by the very polarized reviews, thus I took the journey.

    I agree with the alchemic and exoteric interpretations, I also believe the true beauty of this movie is it just grows as a tree, one can just find too many meanings and implications, but still there are recurring themes which to me could be sumarized to: “time spent with our loved ones is never enough” and “there’s no cure to death and if there was that’ll be pointless and frustrating anyway” as we can see when when flowers spung from his wound or the chimp’s tumor not receding despite the rest of its organism rejuvaniting.

    Tom is a man without faith, he’s consumed by grief, anger, regrets and ultimately fear, thus I believe the timeline is: Tomas teh conquistador is Izzy’s novel, Creo is the present and the bald astronaut is him coping with the loss of his wife trough meditation, he try to self heal and each time he loose his calm -due to Izzy follwong him right into his bubble- he won’t reach enlightment; when he finally breaks in tears he realize there were nothing he could do to save her wathever his choices, he finally did reach enlighment but still will cry on her tombstone, he simply put the seed close to her burial as an act of ultimate kindness, we sought through his journey how he wished he could go back in time fixing those very moments he regrets so much but in reality all he can do right now is to put an old, dry seed on the ground, that’s all he’s left with but nonetheless he does so and finally accept she’s dead, all while the last time we sought him in that very place he just went away in anger you could see he would’ve hunted and slashed the death herself with his Wolverine claws, just joking.

    This movie reminds me the famous monk, strawberry and tiger Koan: we’re all going to die anyway and so does the stars and the galaxies, in our short span of life we have we should treasure every single moment and accept that everything and everyone will eventually perish, and then life start again.

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