It's the future, Jim, but not as we know it...

There's more to tomorrow than robots, flying cars, and a faster internet.
22C+ is all about Deep Futures, futures that matter. Welcome to futures fantastic, unexpected, profound, but most of all deeply meaningful...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review: The Cosmic Scale of "The Tree of Life"

The Tree of Life is a complex and beautiful Terrence Malick film which verges on the brink of greatness, yet in the end is hampered by its own grandiosity.

The movie is as much a piece of art as it is storytelling. The story is relatively simple. The setting for most of the film is Waco, Texas, perhaps around the early 1960s. The date, like much of the film, remains deliberately unstated. A young man is killed, presumably in the Vietnam War, and we see the family mourning his passing. In particular we are led into the psyche of the grieving mother (Jessica Chastain), as she questions her Christian beliefs, pleading to God, demanding an explanation as to why her child has been taken from her.

Behind this there is a strangely removed narrative of the dead boy’s brother, played by Sean Penn in the present day. Jack O’Brien is a middle aged architect in a large city of metal and glass towers. Upon his face he wears a look of constant bewilderment, haunted by the death of his brother many years before. We see the older Jack wandering through huge office spaces and cavernous walkways. The contrast with the setting of his idyllic small town childhood could not be more stark. I assume Penn wasn’t paid by the word for his role in the movie, as he  barely opens his mouth in the small amount of screen time he does get. As the story unfolds we see much of the narrative through the eyes of the young Jack, played by Hunter McCraken.

Despite its weaknesses, I do recommend this film. This is a quintessentially spiritual experience  which attempts to weave together the unimaginably vast universe which has been revealed by modern scientific cosmology and biology, and the spiritual worldview of Christianity and religion in general. For me, by far the most profound and memorable part of the film is the breathtaking scenes of cosmic frontiers which inexplicably burst forth onto the screen just after we have been confronted with the family's grief. We see planets moving across a boiling sun, the moons of Jupiter orbiting the colossal planet, whirling galaxies stretching to infinity. And all displayed with an angelic, operatic soundtrack which lifts the soul into a souring mystical climax. Then we are witness to the beginnings of biological life itself, the fertilization of the egg, the dance of living cells as they reproduce and multiply. We see an asteroid crashing into the earth, ice ages, and even dinosaurs. The Tree of Life is indeed a creative work on an epic scale.

And then we are brought back to Waco, Texas. But even this mundane world is transformed into an almost celestial beauty by superb cinematography, from sunlight streaming through windows, soft and intimate close ups of faces, children playing and laughing as they run through the spray of a water sprinkler, the planting of a tree… We see the mother playing with her growing child, and eventually the family produces three boys.

Did I mention Brad Pitt is in there too? Pitt plays the classic, overly stern patriarch, tormented by his own demons and unfulfilled quest for personal fulfillment. I’m not a great Brad Pitt fan, but I have to say this was an entirely convincing performance by him. I’m sure many of us now in middle age will relate to a time when fathers were quite different from the typical family patriarch of today. Certainly I could see elements of my own father’s iron fisted ways in Pitt’s tough performance.

The Tree of Life will divide audiences, I suspect. In the day time session I attended here in Hong Kong, some people got up and left - bored, I suspect, with the slow pace of the movie. But the vast majority stayed, and several were weeping near the end.

Even if its entertainment factor does not live up to the grand scale of Transformers 2 (yes, that’s sarcasm), The Tree of Life is not a film you will forget quickly. Indeed, as I reflected upon this movie today, it struck me that this is a piece of cinema that could potentially stir the latent spiritual yearnings amongst those cognitively locked inside the iron cage of the modernist scientific worldview. The movie paints a grand, breathtaking cosmos which honours the vast frontiers of scientific knowledge even as it renders resplendent the spiritual longings of the mystic attempting to answer the eternal questions of life, death and what it all means. 

(warning, slight spoiler in the remainder of the paragraph) In the film’s climax the mother surrenders in an archetypal act of grace. She says, “Lord, I give you my son.” This follows on from the opening scene of the movie, where a voiceover implores that there are two ways of the universe: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. The way of nature is conflict and death. The way of Grace opens us to the eternal.

This could have been a better film, a classic indeed, with tighter editing, and perhaps a tighter reign on the director’s ego! For the artist, leaving stuff out is always difficult. If the movie had been cut back by 20-30 minutes I think it could have been much more powerful. Instead, it does get slightly confusing in places, and the narrative is not always explicit. There are elements of surrealism too, and it is not always easy to separate the real from the psychic (in the broader sense of the term).

But then again, maybe that is the entire point. Life rarely delivers answers in neat blocks of reality.

Just a few weeks ago a childhood friend of mine sent me an email. I had - a few months previously - given him details of my websites and blogs. He wrote to me and said, “I am confused. Are you for religion or for science?” I felt somewhat sad that a man in his mid forties has lived so long bearing the false science/religion dichotomy on which modern western thought is premised. It is for people like my friend that The Tree of Life might bear the greatest gift. That is, the awareness that science and spirituality are part of the one seamless whole, and that it is only the split in the modern mind that has torn them asunder.

As has been noted, the universe is not only vaster than we think, it is vaster than we can think.


  1. Very nice review. Interesting typo/Freudian slip in the third paragraph:

    "the dead boy’s bother"

    A bother, indeed.

  2. Re:
    "There are elements of surrealism too, and it is not always easy to separate the real from the psychic (in the broader sense of the term)."
    I guess you might say there is "A Thin Red Line" .-)
    Good review Marcus.I hope to catch this movie on the weekend.There is another good review on this film at Reality;

    Have you seen the Australian/French production of "The Tree"?
    It's worth a look,too.

    Cheers / Daz

  3. Brizdaz, no I haven't seen "The Tree". Thanks for the lead, and I'll see if I can track it down.

    "Anonymous", thanks for informing about the typo. Unfortunately there are almost always typos in my posts, as I just don't have the time for the repeated editings required to find them all!

  4. Thanks for posting this review. I saw this film several weeks ago and was disappointed. I've liked the previous four Terrence Malick films that I've seen, so this had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, I saw it with a movie discussion group, so we discussed this movie afterwards. I'll probably watch it again on DVD just to see if a second viewing enhances my understanding of the film. Your review is probably the best one I've read on the film. Really.

  5. This is actually the first Terrence Malick film I've seen, Sansego! Seems it got a pretty good response from critics on rotten tomatoes (85%), with the general public less favourable at 65%. I agree it is far from perfect, and tries a little too hard. Some have called it 'pretentious'.