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.

134 thoughts on “The Fountain explained

  1. 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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  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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…”

  8. Thanks for your kind words and for sharing your insight, Shannon. It’s always amazing to meet another person who appreciates this film on such a deep level.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.)

  11. 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.

  12. 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)

  13. 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.

  14. 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?

  15. 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.

  16. @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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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?

  26. 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.

Comments welcome!