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.

150 thoughts on “The Fountain explained

  1. I had the graphic novel of this movie before it came out and really enjoyed it when I finally saw it. It had been years since I had scene it, but I recently got a 1080p hdtv and blu ray player and had to make this blu ray a part of my collection. I instantly feel in love with it again but on an even deeper level this time having spent the past few years reading books on reincarnation and studying Buddhism. This review/explanation is the best I’ve found online, first it aligned very much with how I perceived the film and it taught me things about the movie I didn’t know giving me even more appreciation for it. Thank You.

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  2. This movie was so deep for me, but at the same time simple to understand. What I felt from the movie was this…Tomas and Elizabeth are both fictional from a fictional story written by Izzy to help her husband Tommy come to grips and understand her death (she was ready to die and saw how fiercely he fought it). She could not simply tell him this because his love for her would not allow him to accept it, and she knew this. Instead, she asked him to read her fictional story (which she knew when reading, he would associate the characters with the two of them). The quest for The Tree of Life was her way of showing him the greed of seeking eternal life (which was what he was doing, in essence, by giving up the last days with her in order to seek a cure). She asked him to write the final chapter because she knew that during his writings, he would realize her purpose for the book–to help him let her go. She hinted at this during the bathtub scene (is she a redhead?). Queen Elizabeth giving him the ring in the story was meant to be a message to him that he would always have that time of “togetherness” with her, “she will always be with him” regardless of death. His writing into the final chapter that he gorged on the tree of life was his way of saying that he realized that he had been greedy in his quest to save her, but that he finally realized that the true eternity was death, and that eventually, following his own death, he would ‘live’ forever with her. His writing in of him suddenly having the ring at the end is also symbolizing that he understands that she will always be there. Seeing her giving him the seed to plant shows acceptance and him finally being able to ‘let her in’ so to speak. He planted the seed knowing that the tree would grow and always be there on that farm, providing a place that he could go and be with her until he is able to move on, which he could not do until he accepted that death was not a disease but a natural part of life he could not.

    I read another explanation somewhere that included an element that I had not thought about–why his chapter was so sci-fi ish, and that was because of his scientific training and the fact that he was no writer. She had become spiritual after her disease diagnosis which explains why her story is about “the Holy Grail” of sorts, and one of the greatest sins–greed. She admits in her fictional story that in the beginning of her cancer, she had this “live forever” mentality, but she had overcome it. But again, her story, and her request that he finish it, was to help him to not allow that untraceable quest to take over his life.

    Beautiful, rich story, excellent movie!! This is what I received from it. The movie was far from jumbled and incoherent for me. I wish the critics could have opened their mind a little to this epic movie because it deserves so much more than what it got.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kollette. I’ve heard a similar interpretation before, and it appealed to me for many reasons. However, I had difficulty reconciling some of the plot elements, so ultimately, I settled upon the simple and straightforward interpretation I discussed in this article.

    Someone said to me that part of the beauty of this film lies in its openness to interpretation. I agree. I’m glad that you found the film rewarding!

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  4. I interpreted it the way Kollette did. The past was the book she wrote, the present was reality, and the “future” was really an interpretation of what was going on in his mind and his thought processes. I’ve been looking for how others view the film’s meanings. I never thought about reincarnation as being part of it so its interesting to read this particular view. I do love how this film has so many other details going on that any interpretation can be correct depending on how one chooses to view things. Great attention to detail by the filmmakers!!

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  5. I really enjoyed this movie, especially when I realized that this movie leaves a lot of possible interpretations! My interpretation: Tom in the past was the book written by his wife, Tom in the now was real, and Tom in the bubble was a visualization of his subconscious. He had ‘to finish’ to book, but didn’t know how and was afraid. If he finally did, he left the ‘prison’ of his subconscious and let go his desire to resurrect his wife. He feels free, found the garden of eden, finds his ring again, and accepts that immortality lays in memories instead of reality.

    The book ends as some kind of disillusion when it comes to ‘the tree of life’. Immortality is therefore explained as ‘becoming a part of the universe’, rather than living forever. He had to finish the book to realize this.

    ‘The future’ ends by the same disillusion when the tree of life dies. I think this is a visualization of his subconscious at the moment he finishes the book and finally realizes to let go. Suddenly he is not afraid anymore, he climbs the dead tree and leaves the small, endless bubble he had been in for so long. He frees his soul by letting go the dream of immortality and finds what he was looking for so long.

    The now ends when both parts come together. He accepts the death of his wife and the fact that she’s a part of the universe now. As a symbol he plants a tree on her grave.

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  6. Hani, I can’t think of any added significance for the hair. If anyone can think of one, please let us know. It may not have any though. Sometimes things are just what they seem.

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  7. I think Kollette and Larry come closest to explaining the movie tying almost all of the strings together into a coherent explanation. It is quite evident that the medieval story is Izzy’s unfinished novella – this is seen when Tom runs out of the bed trying to hide his sobs and picks up the book and the camera pans at the text and you get to read the beginning of her works and words such as ‘Spain’ ‘Conquistador’ appear is subsequent shots of Tom reading the book immediately after which the medieval story resumes. The futuristic bubble floating in space with the Tree of Life and Tommy, interpreted as his subconscious/internal dialogues also makes a lot a sense because that sense of loneliness floating alone in the universe mimic Tommy’s emotions of despair; Izzy’s projections interacting with Tommy (something we ALL do in our minds with people we know); his thoughts (projections) of her lying in the hospital bed expecting the worst (again, human tendency of imagining the worst even before it happens); and the frequent whispering of Izzy’s voice to “Finish it” – a guilt urging him to complete her novella – all these fit perfectly in Tommy’s mind. The seed that Tommy puts on her grave relates to the story that Izzy narrated in the Mayan Museum (?) about the guide telling her how he buried his father and then planted a seed so that his father is now a tree of which a bird ate and now that his father flies with the bird – and so on – giving endless possibilities to awareness and awe thus stating – “Death is the road to awe” – which Tommy uses as a line in the novella when the Mayan king attacks Tomas on top of the pyramid. In the bubble (subconscious) Tommy struggles and screams at Izzy’s projections to leave him alone and thats when Izzy makes him realize that when he dies he’ll be with her forever (Together we shall live forever) and also convinces him to complete the novella.
    All these events/thoughts finally allow Tommy to realize that she will be with him forever (after death) and also enable him to accept that fact that she is dead.
    Great movie! Thanks Kollette and Larry for your inputs to help me towards a very satisfying explanation. Peace

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  8. There’re some new ideas here I hadn’t thought of…
    I had always thought that the “future” Tom, in space, was really Tommy still – but that he had discovered the secret of the tree of life – the tree that they had used to cure the monkey. I always just assumed that through the tree scientists had then created an elixir for immortality, & that this was the same Tommy, far in the future.
    One thing I’ve always been curious about, is where did he really get the seed to plant on her grave? It’s a memory he keeps replaying at first, where he tells her he can’t go on a walk with her and so she leaves, & near the end of the movie he’s changed enough that when he thinks of the memory again, he decides to go with her. But that didn’t really happen… And then he’s planting that seed on her grave. It’s just never made sense.

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  9. Hi Reb, like you, I believe that everything is real. Some commentators believe that the future is all in Tommy’s head, which is an equally viable interpretation. So in the spirit of multiple interpretations, I’m going to offer 2 possible answers.

    1. If you believe that the future is real, then Tommy takes a seed from the Tree of Life and plants it on her grave. He regrets not spending enough time with her before she dies. In the future, as he comes to terms with the fact that he is going to die, he closes his eyes and “reimagines” his memory. He imagines that he went with her instead of working. That she gives him a seed. And that he plants that seed on her grave, and she becomes the Tree. He gains a sense of closure.

    2. The future is all in Tommy’s head. None of it’s real. It’s just a way to show how he comes to terms with death. The memory then is either entirely real or a composite of real memories. He did go out with her that time, or at least some time. She gave him a seed (looks like a sugar gum seed). He plants this seed on her grave for closure.

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  10. The thing that I really appreciated about this movie, other than the emotional attachment you develop with the characters, is the visual effects. The fact that they took macro-photography of bacteria and other organic materials, created by Peter Parks, a photographer from London is so creative and adds so much to the space scenes. here’s an article about the process they used. http://www.cgsociety.org/index.php/CGSFeatures/CGSFeatureSpecial/fountain_effects

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  11. Thanks for bring this up, Ryan. I’m sure that part of the reason for doing the graphics this way was budget related, but it also shows Aronofsky’s willingness to try something new. I agree–very cool.

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  12. Hi David, on a basic level, Izzy is asking for Tommy to finish the book. If you read it more broadly, she is asking him to finish his quest and–even more broadly–his journey toward enlightenment. When he finally overcomes his fear of death, he finally joins her.

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  13. As soon as I read “The Wheel” bullets, it hit me: “Samsara!”

    In Buddhism, Samsara is the wheel of rebirth that we repeat endlessly, until we become a Buddha – “Awakened One”/”Enlightened One.” According to texts – Siddhartha Gautama (aka The Buddha) sat under a large bodhi tree until he reached Buddha-hood. At that time he was fully enlightened on the nature of things – including the nature of death and immortality. Interesting, now, is that the Buddha is OFF the wheel of Samsara. He will never be reborn endlessly. When you look at Tom breaking out of the bubble and in a Buddhist meditative pose, surrounded by glowing rings of heavenly light – upon accepting death – he finally reached enlightenment. His constant suffering and re-suffering over death is gone, and it shows present Tom saying goodbye to Izzy. In other words: “letting go and accepting”. And the past Tom at the Tree of Life shows that in death, we become part of the environment itself. In death, we become Everywhere and Every-When. We become part of the whole of the universe.

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  14. Hi Anthony, I corrected your original comment to be as you intended it. I agree with you. I believe that Tom is on the same journey as the Buddha. This is one of the reasons that I have interpreted the story the way I have. I really like how it ties both Western and Eastern thought together. The other interpretations are equally viable from a storyline perspective, but for me, they lack this same synergy of ideas.

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  15. Nice topic! The Fountain is one of my favourite movies! Great performances by Hugh and Rachel (not that I know them personally, but I think they wouldn’t mind me calling them not Mr. Jackman and Mrs. Weisz). You can feel the (acted) love and pain. The scene where Tommy is trying to revive Izzy is heartbreaking and that scene a little later where he’s ‘crying’ while tattooing a ring on his finger is so powerful and touching! Too much great scene’s in this movie! But ok, enough’s said about that.

    I have read some great interpretations and ideas! I never thought about the story from an reincarnation point of view, and I like the idea! It gave me more answers then anything else I’ve read. But I still have some ideas left that I want to talk about with others. But first I would like to react on Hanni’s question about the little hairs. In my opinion the hairs from the tree and the hairs from Izzy’s neck are the same. I think that Izzy and the Tree are one (albeit symbolic). I come to this conclusion because, first of all, the hairs on Izzy’s neck stand up straight when Tommy is laying behind her and he speaks to her. The hairs on the tree react in the same way when (space) Tom speaks to the Tree when he’s very near to it (‘We’re almost there. We’re gonna make it. Don’t worry. We’ll be all right. I just need to take a little..’ The ‘little’ Tom is talking about is off course some bark, but it could also be about some time, because Izzy is slowly dying without Tommy (physically) on her side while he is searching for a way to cure her disease). The little hairs react to his touch to. Second, right before the scene where we can see Izzy being washed and caressed by Tommy, there’s a transition scene where we can see the hand of Tom/Tommy sliding over a part of the Tree which turns into a part of Izzy’s body just before we see her laying in bath. For the third ‘piece of evidence’ you have to listen very closely to the background in a particularly scene. It’s the first scene where we can see Tom taking a bit of bark from the Tree. If you listen very closely you can hear a woman sighing while he’s cutting in the Tree. You may have to listen a few times before hearing it. Unless it is Hugh sighing very feminine, I think it is a woman’s sigh which resembles Izzy sighing. But why.. I don’t really know.

    The Tree is in every timeline, but I didn’t read anything anywhere about the ‘etnobotanical compound’ they are talking about in surgery of Donovan. They are talking about a Tree from Guatamala: ‘Remember that etnobotanical compound we played around with last year. Which one? From that tree? That one from central America. Guatamala.’ This could be the Ceiba of Yaxché. A tree found in central America where, not coincidentally, the Maya’s live(d).
    Besides this, could there be a very little reference to the situation he and Izzy are in? Love isn’t a cure, but it is needed in times of need. Especially when one’s lover is (slowly) dying? Tommy speaks about the compounds as lovers: ‘Fold them in like two lovers. Woman on top.’ My thinking here goes way too deep, but could this also mean that Izzy (woman on top) is stronger and has accepted death?

    One last thing (well, some things) to think about or take in consideration for a discussion? Some little metaphorical stuff maybe?

    – Izzi uses Spain as a metaphor to describe Tommy’s battle to find a cure for her. When she’s in the hospital and Tommy is talking about that there was some progress at work she smiles and literally says: ‘My conquistador. Always conquering.’
    – The inquisitor in Izzy her manuscript represents the tumor in her head that’s slowly taking over and will eventually conquer her. Tomas says that the inquisitor ‘must be cut out’ (maybe implying to attack the tumor more aggressively), but Tomas is being hold back by a messenger (send by the queen herself to have a private audience with him!) while he was aiming an arrow at the inquisitor. When Tomas arrives at the queen she’s having a speech and doesn’t want Tomas to kill the inquisitor because ‘Europe would have my head.’
    – Queen Isabella and Spain are (respectively) Izzy’s will (to live/survive/live forever) and her body. The inquisitor (tumor) wants to take over Spain (Izzy’s body), but queen Isabella (will to live/survive/live forever) has a way to survive (Tree of life/Buddhism?).

    So here are some signs (I think) that the story of Spain is metaphorical because there are some references to the tumor and the location where it grows (and some other scene’s like Tommy reading the story about Spain and he finishing the story in his own way). Although it doesn’t make too much sense if you think about the reincarnation point of view (which I really like!). So, what do other Fountain-lovers think about all this?

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  16. Sorry to bother you again but I just watched one of my favourite movies for the dozenth time again and noticed some things (besides Izzy’s name being Izzi) with the ‘reincarnation point of view’. But first I want to supplement my last comment about the little hairs being of Izzi with this; in the end the Tree dies when Izzi dies. That makes a forth argument for the Tree being Izzi (albeit symbolic). From know on I want to support the ‘reincarnation point of view’.

    When Tommy is looking through the window above him, he gets a ‘revelation’. He sees some snow and light through the window above him just like the lights (space) Tom sees in his bulb travelling to Xibalba. It is as if he knows something by seeing something he already knows or experienced before. I hope this makes sense, because I’m not typing this in my mother tongue (I’m from the Netherlands and I just drank a little).

    Another example of the reincarnation view (or still alive after 500 years because he found a way to cheat death) is the pen and ink. Tom is out of ink (pretty logical after 500 years) but he still got his pen. The first time we see the pen the camera focuses on it and a sound is heard. The second time we see the pen the camera focuses on it and the same sound is heard.

    We can see the Franciscan gazing at the stars and holding the ‘dagger’ (mentioned before by Tomas) matching the stars around Orion. That’s the dagger he found at the body of a dead Mayan priest. That priest is (I presume) killed by Tomas.

    The messenger who was send by queen Isabella says: ‘He leads us in circles!’ Hmm… circles… That sounds like something I read before in this topic. Than he (a westerner) kills the Franciscan (who is a westerner) because he thinks his tales about the (eastern) stories are false. A true example of cultural relativism (this last term is especially mentioned for the people who studied cultural anthropology just like me). The westerners own ideas are better than those of the easterners. Old World versus New World. Still relevant today, accept the West is (still) lead by a former New World (North America) and an Old World (Europe) versus the Eastern World (read: [mainly] Islam and other thinkers or religions and ‘cultures’ who can be a threat in some peoples eyes). We can start a whole new topic on this but let just skip this one.

    Another example of the reincarnation view:
    – Tom (in space) says: ‘You pulled me through time’ (while watching the tattoos on his arms).
    – Repeating sentences in different era’s (especially in the end scenes).
    – Tom lives in his bubble and is hunted continually by his memories of Izzy and what he could have done otherwise. There’s one scene where you can see (space) Tom sitting on Izzy’s bed and standing up from it while he is in the bubble. And when he stands up Izzy is fading away.
    – He sees alternatives of how he could have reacted and acted in some situations in the past where he lived with Izzy while she was sick.
    – He wants to know everything about that Tree after Izzy’s death. He says he wants to cure death and stop dying. ‘Stop aging, stop dying’ (also a memory of him saying this)

    Aranofsky is combining religious beliefs; that’s just awesome. When Tomas sees that the sap from the Tree is healing his body he starts to belief in the Tree (which can be seen as something Christian because it is the Tree of life). After seeing the healing ‘powers’ of the Tree he consumes far too much of it because he is greedy (sin: Christianity). Does this mean that the story is mostly about love and accepting death while being surrounded by loved ones and reaching out to each other instead of being selfish and not accepting one another because they have different beliefs and religions?

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  17. Hi Heije, thanks for your comments. I always enjoy discussing works like “The Fountain;” it’s never a bother! I’m impressed with the level of thought that you put into this film. Yes, I agree with you about the hair. It can be interpreted as evidence that the Tree is Izzi. I’m sure that the Tree is probably based on a real life tree in the Mayan area. I like your ideas about the compound and love. I hadn’t thought about that. I don’t think there are any interpretations that are “too deep.” That the beauty of a work like this. Every time you watch or discuss the film, you can discover something new on a different level.

    Thanks for sharing your metaphorical ideas. About half the commentors to this article interpret the story to be metaphorical, and your ideas fit that interpretation very well. I’m sure that they appreciate your ideas.

    There is a lot of evidence for the reincarnation interpretation, and you did a great job in pointing some of them out in your second comment. I understand what you mean about Tommy’s revelation, which seems to be a look into the future. I like this idea because it implies that time is all one. Most of the time, as limited beings, we can only see past and present. But sometimes when we reach a higher state of consciousness, we can see glimpses of what will be.

    You hit upon two of the things that I like most about “The Fountain:” 1) how it merges Eastern and Western thought together and 2) what it says about love. I think in the West (particularly in the US), love is too possessive–too selfish–which leads to very perverse results. For example, you hear of people who are brain dead but their relatives refuse to take them off life support out of “love.” Death is a part of life. If you love someone, sometimes you must let them go. In the US, it’s quite common to find people who are so in love with their point of view that they refuse to even listen to anything else. If they truly love others (as they profess to do), then they would listen to and respect other points of view, even if they don’t agree. On a basic level, love is about accepting others as they are, not as you expect them to be. Tomas/Tommy/Tom learns these hard lessons on his journey spanning hundreds of years. That’s what makes this my favorite movie.

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  18. I agree with Mr. Larry about the space bubble being the subconscious. I never saw the space bubble being a “future Tom” because being in space doesn’t immediately indicate future. That plus the zen elements of the space bubble make me sure it’s his inner mind being represented and not part of a plot continuum.

    One part that still gets me though is when the conquistador turns into the floating monk. Not sure about that.

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  19. Something i don’t understand , the fact that Aronofsky mixes two religions . I mean that he put the tree of life in a temple of Maya….

    And something else i wanted to ask , i don’t know if anyone noticed that when Tommy was thinking a solution to save Donovan his looked up into a lamp and the image that the lamp had was the same image when Tom died,
    is this means something?

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    1. Hi Nikoletta, thanks for your comments. I believe that Aronofsky intentionally mixes the religions to make things interesting and perhaps to suggest that there might be some connections between them. The lamp scene is one example of how he connects the time sequences together. This is why I believe that past, present, and future are all the same story. Tomas/Tommy/Tom are all the same person.

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  20. Hi again,

    I couldn’t resist replying. This time I’ll keep it shorter than last time. ZenGarden mentioned the end scene when conquistador Tomas and floating monk Tom ‘finish’ the Mayan priest. Just like Justarius says; it’s a ‘time loop’. I was thinking about that and maybe Tomas/Tommy/Tom has been in this loop for several times and has been in the same ‘scenes’ of these lives a couple of times before except for this last scene. Life is a very big lesson for him and all of us and maybe (as we’ve seen with the first snow scene when Izzi walks in and he gets agitated and let her walk away) he has made a few mistakes in his (former and/or future) lives what made him not fulfill his ‘loop’. Until he makes the right (always relative, but ok) choices he can fulfill his ‘loop’. In this last scene with Tomas and Tom he has completed his lesson(s) by making the right choices or taking the right actions (accept dying, letting Izzi go and being told and reassured that ‘together we will live forever’). He has fulfilled his lifecycle containing several lives. Maybe lifecycles is more appropriate. I don’t know if others understand what I’m trying to say, but this is what I can make of my thoughts.

    The thing ZenGarden (and Larry) says first is an interesting one. His inner mind. If I’m correct we can see the camera zooming in on ‘space’ Tom’s head (1.18.59 on my DVD disc) and turning in Xibalba-like effects and we can see the Mayan priest and conquistador Tomas. He’s finishing his loop by coming back at the beginning. When conquistador Tomas ‘finishes’ the Mayan priest he can get to the tree he was looking for in this life. After drinking the sap from the tree he dies pretty violently while trying to put on the ring and is ‘giving birth’ to a lot of flowers. The ring falls down and is picked up by ‘space’ Tom. He then puts on the ring and bursts into a fountain of light and eventually gives birth to the tree. He completed the cycle (symbolically by putting on a closed loop; a ring representing the love he has for Isabella/Izzi). Both times he dies and gives life to rooted organisms.

    Isabella/Izzi is not physically present when Tom is in the bubble but only exists as a memory. In the bubble (or inner mind as ZenGarden mentioned) he is confronted with being mortal and has to accept the fact that everybody dies. While talking to Isabella/Izzi (who’s in his inner mind if you like) he gets to the point that he accepts dying as a part of life saying ‘I’m gonna die’ while ‘seeing’ or ‘experiencing’ moments of his past life with Izzi. In one of these brief moments we can see Izzi in bed after she just passed away while you can hear her voice saying ‘I’m not afraid anymore’. And that’s the moment when Tom accepts dying as a part of life. At first before coming to this topic I thought that conquistador Tomas was fictional and created by Izzi to let Tommy accept death and see it more as a rite of passage and Tom in the bubble was written by Tommy to finish Izzi’s book. And I could never fit the pieces and the story and symbolical things together. But then this ‘time is all’ and ‘loops’ came on my way thanks to Justarius and I think he has the best explanation in my opinion. Now I see evidence of this explanation in a lot of things but I could also be stuck in a kind of ‘tunnelvision’ (we say that in the Netherlands when you are stuck in your own thinking and ignoring all other possibilities). Anyhow..

    What Justarius replied to Nikoletta is exactly what I’ve mentioned in my second writing. ‘When Tommy is looking through the window above him, he gets a ‘revelation’. He sees some snow and light through the window above him just like the lights (space) Tom sees in his bulb travelling to Xibalba. It is as if he knows something by seeing something he already knows or experienced before.’ Tommy does this a second time (at 1.13.40). The lights go out and he looks up and then there’s a cut scene to Tom in the bulb travelling to Xibalba. These are all part of the ‘life loop’ in time he is in.

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  21. Excellent insights from the main article as well as the comments. Every few months I am compelled to revisit The Fountain. The strong emotional resonance is exactly why it is my favorite movie (though Jamin Winans’ Ink follows closely behind).

    The only thing I would like to add is that the name “Tomas” (Thomas) means twin. This fits nicely with the mystical/scientific duality mentioned in the main article.

    It is rare to find intelligent and engaging discussion of such a magnificent (and personally significant) film. Most of my real world encounters end abruptly with how “that stupid movie” is just too “weird” or “confusing”.

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    1. I didn’t know that about “Tomas;” thanks for sharing this insight, Larkitect. I’m glad that you enjoyed both the film and the article. I’ve really enjoyed the discussion here as well. Keep it coming, folks!

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    1. Justarius, I’m so happy to hear that I put “ink” on your radar. It is a beautiful movie with a lot of heart. Please report back if you do get around to watching it.

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      1. “Overture” was good. When the woman told the man she had to show him something I half expected it to be the Tree of the Knowlegde of Good and Evil or a piece of fruit with a bite missing. Alas, the short was helmed by a more sophisticated storyteller than I!

        I enjoyed the tone and that the use of water went almost beyond symbology to the point of it being a manifestation of spirit.

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  22. MY NAME IS MATT. I TOO HAVE LONG SEARCHED. TANGLED MY MIND ONLY TO BURST WITH ENLIGHTENMENT. LOOK TO THE SYCAMORE. SPHERICAL FRUIT FULL OF HAIR. CONNECTIVITY. ALL IS ENERGY. ENERGY WITH DESIGN BECOMES MATT-ER. CONNECT AND HOLD YOUR FORM. I WISH ALL THE VERY BEST.

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  23. nice and poignant movie
    the syncretic attitude of composing worldwide philosophical creeds (“scientific” vs. christian vs. buddhist and Tom Creo ; in between )) is what intrigued me most

    I have a big problem though addressing the “is it real history vs. no it’s all fiction except for the present story” dilemma
    I mean I’d say it’s right that we should view past/present/future stories as all true happenings, it makes sense within the movie
    but then again something’s quite wrong there with the Spain/Maya 16th century tale:
    Queen isabella’s predicament and all the “Inquisitor” plot are so rootless, far removed from any historical reality, cartoonish sketches like those Star wars/Lord of the Rings tall tales that they appear to fall back to the fiction shelf precisely among such novels as the one Izzy was indeed writing, if you see what i mean.

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  24. Hi soSagtdieHex, I agree that the Spanish story is the weakest part. I wish that Aronofsky could have found a more believable way to tell of the queen and Tomas’s relationship, but he probably didn’t because of time and money issues. So I personally just suspend my disbelief and accept this flaw because the rest of the movie needs some sort of starting point.

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  25. Hello, Like most of you I absolutely loved this beautiful film and the puzzle has stayed with me for days and weeks. Thank you for the interesting discussion.

    My take away is this: creation (creativity) requires sacrifice, but the mistake we make is that we think we can create through the power of our wills. What the movie said to me is that a truly awesome creation only results when we give ourselves over to the power of the creation, becoming in effect a passive medium, allowing the power of our own will to die.

    I didn’t feel that it was important to knit the three stories together (although it was interesting to try and do so, especially through the imagery and tie-ins). The two images that stayed with me the most are the image of Tomas’ body bursting into vegetation and later Tom being consumed by the super nova. In those moments of creation the active became the passive. Thanks.

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  26. Thanks for sharing your insights, Helen. I think that any artist will immediately understand what you are saying. Art is a way of communing with or channeling something higher. The challenge for artists then is to find the best way of expressing how this experience makes them feel, not to invent new ideas themselves.

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  27. Someone asked above about the hair. To me the hair simbolizes the life energy, the aliveness of the tree and of hers, their presence.

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  28. the past is not real…it shows the story that izzy is writing that casts tom as a a conquistador and reflects toms fight to cure Izzy’s cancer. The “beast that runs amuck” in her kingdom is the cancer and the inquisitor could even be representative of he tumor as it shows his influence growing. Tom is trying to kill the inquisitor but he is interrupted, as Queen Isabella is requesting a private word with him…just as Izzy would do in the present…Tom is at work trying to create a drug to save her and she just wants to be with him. Why would izzy be writing a story about something that already happened? Are works of fiction just memories of our past lives? Love all interpretations of this film. Lets keep it up.

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  29. I’m firmly in the camp that found this movie to be one the greatest and moving movies i’ve ever seen. My take is the past is most definitely izzies attempt to make tom see that death is something we all face and should not fear and gives the comforting thought that ultimately it may not be the complete end of things as such (As was the belief of the maya)The present is reality while the future is toms own mind struggling to deal with the loss of his wife and his own mortality. I like the symbolism of the tree which in my mind is used to convey life (And death) itself.In the jungles in the book the trees are a picture of health and life, In the present with winter approaching and the first snows (The time most associated with death)they are without leaves but even then the promise of spring and regeneration is there as well as new live from last summers seeds. In the future (or Toms mind as i like to think of it) All hope is lost the tree is dying though he can’t accept it (Just as he couldn’t accept death itself in the present story) Only after he sees the tree last piece of life succumb and fade while his visions of izzy continue to plead with him to finish it (Her book, Which was her means of getting him to accept her passing) does he finally look at the visions of izzy and admits i’m going to die! The last part of the movie i feel is tom finishing the book for izzy and as a last mark of love for her he plants the tree seed over her grave just like the story she told him of the mayan decendent who did the same after a passing of her loved one. The tree will always be there, When the birds eat the fruit a part of her with fly with the birds. I fell he finished the book just as he would have imagined izzy would have wanted, With death not being the final end but afterwards you become part of the universe!

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  30. Hi folks, I really appreciate all your interpretations.

    Here is mine. I’ll try to be as short as possible.

    First, I believe that “present” story and “future” story are real, and past is only in Izzi’s book. But I like to put it this way: Future is present, and there are two pasts, one real and one in the book.

    Tattoos, Fountain pen, memory plays and other things prove direct link between Tom Creo and Tommy, so that is the same person all these years.

    “All these years, all these memories, there was you. You pull me through time.”

    No one mention some of this so I need to:

    1. When Izzi explains to Tom about Nebula, while there watching through telescope, she said: “It begins there (Spain). Ends there (Nebula).” So she gave him a hint about the story.

    2. Later in the movie, she gave him another hint. The scene in the hospital when she talked about Mayan guide Moses Morales from her trip.

    “They’d planted a seed over his grave. The seed became a tree. Moses said his father became part of that tree. He grew into the wood, into the bloom. And when a sparrow ate the tree’s fruit, his father flew with the birds. He said: death was his father’s road to awe.”

    We can see how birds flew away in the and of the Izzi’s/Tommy’s story when Tomas approached the tree.

    3. Izzi’s story is told to the part right before the sword hits Tomas. Tom Creo need to continue from that point.

    4. All these years Tommy tries to finish the book, but he can not manage the end so in his conscience there is a endless loop with memory plays and sentences as “Finish it” and “You do. You will”.

    4. The movie was originally called “The Last Man”. So, it is possible that he was the last man of the human kind in reality and The First Father in the book.

    5. So, before he sacrifices himself he finally finished the book in his head in the place where she wanted. Inside of Nebula.

    6. The tree in the Space Bubble is actually the tree he planted on her grave. Her hair and her skin are directly related to the tree.

    7. The scene in which she gives him the seed is not real. That’s all in his head.

    8. At the end, star explodes in a supernova. For a moment I thought that Tom was still alive and the entire future was in his head but then he fades out and we can only see a supernova.

    The movies brilliant. So many different interpretations, and each one is beautiful in its own way.

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  31. Don’t forget the old man in the hospital when Izzy dies. The following is all my opinion:

    He is the older Tommy Creo (future, but still present era). They are linked by the wedding ring on old Tommy’s finger. He is trying to say something to younger/present Tommy but cannot speak to him. This is because they do not exist at the same time. Older Tommy is trying to tell present Tommy to let go of his wife (who has just died), he needs to come to terms with it and accept death, not go on some crazy obsessed quest for a way to keep her alive/ressurect her. Older Tommy knows this because he has done it and wants to change his lift (present Tommy’s future life).

    The space bubble scenes are a metaphor for this future path in Tommy’s life, learning to accept Izzy’s death and subsequently his own death.

    Older Tommy in the hospital bed has made this journey and reached this point. I think this is when Tommy actually dies in real time.

    Another way to see all oif this is that present Tommy sees/imagines himself as old and dying just after Izzy dies and it scares him and inspires him to go on his scientific obsession for discovery. It really is open!!

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  32. @Robrock3 but rings are not the same. Tom Creo’s ring is much more thicker. We can see it in the scene when Tom is preparing for surgery, before he lost it.

    Tom Creo/Tommy never found the ring. He feels guilty so he’s tattooing himself “all these years” as a symbol of commitment.

    At the end (in the space bubble), we see the ring again, but I think that’s only how he ends the story in his head. Inside of nebula, just how Izzi wanted.

    “It begins there (Spain). Ends there (Nebula).”

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  33. The entire movie is what Tommy wrote in the book after his wife’s death. “Future” Tom is a character that the real Tommy introduces into the fictional story. There is only ever ONE “reality”, and that’s the reality in which Tommy struggles to find a cure for his wife’s disease, fails, and is then left to struggle with his grief, searching for meaning in life without his wife, writing the final chapter of “The Fountain” in the process.
    CAUTION: The part of the story where “doctor” Tommy finds a secret mayan tree that cures disease and rejuvenates the body is FICTIONAL. The Real Tommy may or may not have been a doctor (I think he probably was), but he WAS caught in a furious struggle to find a cure for his wife before she died.
    We first see a glimpse of reality in the scene where Tommy plants the tree on Izzie’s grave. This is NOT the tree of life seen in “the future” (which is actually fictional), Tommy plants it there in memory to his wife.
    The key here is the scene in which Izzie gives Tommy the seed of the tree of life. This seed is metaphorical, it represents the understanding of both the inevitability of death, and its place in the cycle of life, i.e. we all die, but in doing so we allow new life to grow. Life goes on beyond us. Tommy writes that Izzie “gives” him this knowledge, expressing gratitude to his wife after finally having found some sense in her premature death. After writing this scene, Tommy takes a seed (possibly a mayan tree seed, not magical or anything) and plants it on Lizzies grave, a symbolic gesture of both acceptance of Lizzie’s death and of hope that some part of her will live on through the new tree.

    As for the other instances of Tommy:
    Tomás is Izzie’s original character in The Fountain, a romantic interpretation of her own husband, her “Conquistador” always off trying to conquer death.

    Future Tom is a character that Tommy introduces into the book “The Fountain”. In HIS section of the book, Future Tom “awakens” from the scene in which Thomas is about to die (the last part that Lizzie wrote), and whispers to himself “almost”, which is symbolic of his own frustrated insistence to find an adequate conclusion to Lizzie’s story, find a cure for Lizzie’s disease, and a cure for Death.
    In Tommy’s story, Future Tom has kept himself alive for ages (a clear reference to the real Tommy’s own prolonged grief after Lizzie’s death), in the hopes of finding a way to eradicate Death and bring Lizzie back. He manages to stay alive by eating the bark from the tree of life, which he originally discovered as a doctor (remember, this is all fictional) and which he had hoped would cure Lizzie. The tree is a reference to the memory of Lizzie herself, and the situation (Tom staying alive by eating its bark) is allegorical of Tommy’s own situation as he sees it: He subsists on the memory of his deceased wife. His quest to eradicate Death is, of course, symbolic of Tommy’s own refusal to accept death as a natural part of life.
    So… there’s a level of recursion here: Real Tommy’s real wife left him an unfinished book, and in this unfinished book Tommy writes about Tom, who’s wife also left him an unfinished book, and who is locked in an eternal struggle to both finish the book , and find a cure for Death. Finally, Tom comes to terms with the fact that death is inevitable, and in doing so is finally capable of finishing the original story: In the fictional present Dr. Tom lays aside his frantic search for a cure and instead acompanies his wife to watch the first snow of winter. In the pat, The Mayan Priest stops short of bludgeoning Tomás, and by the light of the fire catches a glimpse of the First Man within Tomás. The priest sacrifices himself, allowing Tomás to reach the tree of life. Tómas is ecstatic and first believes that the tree restores health, but this is wrong. The tree doesn’t restore health, it creates new life. In so doing it ensures “eternal life,” not through the continued existence of a single individual, but through the ongoing process of life; of which the individual is an indivisible part. This is meant as a moment of insight. There is no “living forever” for anyone, there is only Life itself, which doesn’t stop when one person dies, but rather multiplies.
    Having finished the story, Tom is ready to accept his own fate. He looks into the light of Xibalba as it dies, and is obliterated by it. In Xibalba’s death the Tree of Life is rejuvenated, allowing for the cycle of life to continue beyond death.

    Cheers.

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  34. @ Robrock3 I think your interpretation that Tommy sees his old self fits in well with my theory that the whole movie is the last part of the book…

    Confronted with his wife’s death, Tom ponders his own demise. Tom seeing his older self lying in a hospital bed dying is Tommy writing about his own encounter with the fear of death.

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  35. Thanks, Robrock3. Old Tommy trying to talk to young Tommy at the hospital is an interesting idea that I had not heard before, but it suggests that old Tommy somehow traveled back in time, which complicates things. How would this have worked in the story?

    Thanks also to Milos and vmlm for your thoughts. I’m glad to see that this movie continues to inspire discussions about different interpretations. Keep it coming!

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  36. I understood the main plot elements and have interpreted it in my own way as everyone has but the only thing I can’t work into my interpretation is why flowers grow out of him as the conquistador when he first drinks from the tree

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    1. Sullivan, I suppose that depends on how you interpreted everything else. For me there are several possible explanations: 1) he did not deserve the gift, so it kills him, 2) the gift of life was too much for a man to handle, 3) if you believe the conquistador is just a fictional character, then doctor Tommy “finished” the story by killing him off, perhaps to show that he is no longer trying to conquer death, 4) if you believe that “everything is real,” then the conquistador dies the moment that space-bubble Tom becomes enlightened because Tom finally stops trying to conquer death. This is also how Tom gets his ring back.

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  37. Loved the movie from a romantics point of view, but never could really completely understand it. Thanks for an excellent explanation!

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  38. Wow, I liked the movie a lot anyway, because i did grasp a some etheric ideas. But this explanation helped a ton. I was starting the movie as i read this, and I can say that I definitely appreciated it more tonight. I love it now.

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  39. I would have to guess the flowers sprouting from his mouth embody the cycle of life and death. You might notice as well the theme of sacrifice in the latter, similar to how the mayan offers himself to “feed the earth” with his blood.

    Basically it looks like several of the characters offer themselves to be one with the earth, only in different ways. The old man dying on the ground after discovering the way to the temple, and later Tomas, after drinking the sap (also sacrifice for knowledge/wisdom?). The connections are endless. You could probably write a book on the implications alone.

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  40. This is my interpretation: The main concept is that through death we live forever.
    1. Izabel is dying from a disease. Her husband Thomas is desperately trying to find a cure for her disease and along with it a cure for death. Izabel knows she is going to die and writes an unfinished book for Thomas as a way for him to cope and get over her death. She wants Thomas to finish the last chapter so that he can figure out for himself that through death Thomas and Izabel will live forever together.
    2. The conquistador is the character from Izabel’s book who goes off to find the tree of life so he and his queen shall live forever. When he finally finds the tree of life, he drinks the sap and becomes fertilizer for the flowers; he dies, but will live forever through the nature he nourished.
    2. The man in space with the tree of life is Thomas’s subconscious or understanding might be a better word for it. He is clinging to the tree of life, trying to reach the dying star (where his wife is) so he can bring life to his wife. When he breaks away from the tree of life and floats alone to the dying star, he is embracing death as means for him and his wife to live forever

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