Two things before we start on Terrence Malick’s philosophical, spiritual, experimental, transcendent, cosmic odyssey.
One: it’s shorter than Transformers 2. Two: it has dinosaurs in it.
But really, where on earth do we start? Not on Earth. Not at the start. Further back, in the Beginning...
Over four films in as many decades, near-mystical US writer/director Malick has conjured huge arthouseblockbuster tone-poems about seismic periods of human existence like the Great Depression (Days Of Heaven, starring Richard Gere), WW2 (The Thin Red Line, starring everyone in Hollywood) and the discovery of America (The New World, starring Colin Farrell and Christian Bale). The Tree Of Life makes them look like crayon scribbles on the back of a napkin.
A philosophy lecturer turned visionary filmmaker, Malick has finally gone for the big one, unpacking his massive butterfly net and setting out on a quest to capture the existence of God in nature, the meaning of human life and the mysteries of the universe. Whoa.
Land before time
In terms of crazy ambition, there’s nothing else like it. Right from the start, Malick stretches out his arms and attempts to pull together the awesome and the intimate.
But at first, it seems like business at usual: some lovely, drifting shots of a beautiful woman (Jessica Chastain) receiving a telegram telling her that one of her sons has died. She asks, “Why?” Then Malick’s mission begins. He hits the warp button, beaming us into the cosmos and back to the dawn of Creation itself. We just lost cabin pressure...
For the best part of an astonishing hour, we’re immersed in wondrous, mind-blowing images. We see the universe being born. Heavenly Hubble-visions of distant galaxies. Gases, light and matter. Cells splitting. Volcanoes splurging. Jellyfish drifting. Dinosaurs! Asteroids crashing. An embryo’s eye. A child being born.
Created with the help of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s special-effects legend Douglas Trumbull, it might just be the most audacious sequence in cinema since Kubrick’s giant leap from the rise of the apes to the 21st century. And The Tree Of Life never quite touches those giddy heights again.
Malick’s Genesis ends in ’50s Texas, in the town where he grew up, and where strict father Brad Pitt (a fiercely committed turn) and angelic mother Chastain raise their three boys.
This is where Tree lays roots, as Children Of Men cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki films their young son Jack (outstanding newcomer Hunter McCracken) growing in a series of drifting life-fragments – in which very little happens.
Drenched in grandiose classic music, Chastain wanders around looking at trees, while Malick makes her look like an angel (she dances on air at one point) and gives her murmuring lines like, “In what shape did you come to us?” Meanwhile, Pitt scowls imperiously and the kids scamper around.
The Tree Of Life is beautiful. Ridiculously, rapturously beautiful. You could press ‘pause’ at any second and hang the frame on your wall. But you soon get the feeling that Malick could have made the film 30 minutes shorter or 30 hours longer and it would have made no difference.
His goal here is to connect the tensions within this little family (Pitt’s stern Nature vs Chastain’s loving Grace) with the giant forces of the universe. Just in case, Malick tells us exactly this in one of the hushed voiceovers that float over what we’re seeing.
Sean of the dead
We’re regularly teleported to the present day – for the first time in Malick’s career – where grown-up Jack is now Sean Penn, looking angsty, wandering around, not saying much, and looking at rocks.
Even if much of the movie takes place in Jack’s mind, it doesn’t really come together. You’re often left waiting for attentiongrabbing scenes (a toddler staring at a baby, kids tying a frog to a rocket) that don’t arrive often enough, but enthral when they do.
You’ll feel amazed, confused, preached to, ignored, lost, found... and still the camera keeps moving and searching. Then it ends. But not before a finale in which everyone from Jack’s past steps out of time to hug each other on a beach like some sort of Thomson’s holiday advert… albeit the most moving Thomson’s ad you’ll ever see.
But if Malick (and the five editors who worked on 600,000 metres of film for three years) never quite wins his struggle with the film’s impossible ambitions, maybe that’s half the point. Much of The Tree Of Life’s beauty is in its yearning and wonder.
It’s an extraordinary grasping stretch – across space and time – to touch what will always be just out of our reach. It’s a captivating, unmissable experience. And, you know, Transformers 3 is out this month anyway.
Watch the trailer
To infinity and beyond... Terrence Malick’s spiritual odyssey is baffling, unique and overspilling with wonder. Don’t wait for the DVD.