Monday, 11 July 2011

The Tree Of Life

Another review, but shorter this time. I saw Terrence Malick’s latest movie “The Tree of Life” the other night. Malick is a famously reclusive film director, a former philosophy student and translator of Heidegger, who made one of my favourite movies “The Thin Red Line” back in 1998. (Anyone who hasn’t seen but is intending to watch The Tree of Life needn’t fear: I’m only going to focus on one small aspect of the movie.)

His latest offering is a family drama that revolves around a typical American family of the 50s and the childhoods of their three sons. For those familiar with Malick’s style, it offers the usual ruminative and reflective cinematography, with the director’s obsession with the sun and skyscapes even more evident than in previous offerings (if Turner were alive today, he’d make movies like Malick). Going on the evidence of his films, Malick appears to be a kind of Pantheist, a worshipper of “Nature”, and a man who reveres the “mysteries” of life.

What makes this movie stand out is that Malick breaks up the human storyline with flashbacks to the Big Bang, the formation of the universe and the evolution of life on earth. One feature in particular really caught my attention. Malick depicts the creation of the first protein based units that eventually led to humanity, and then we get a brief Jurassic park sequence with a couple of dinosaurs knocking around. When they appeared I really wanted to see if Malick would faithfully depict what I and a lot of the other people on this and other similar themed blogs talk about frequently, namely the brutal indifference of nature and its savage predatory cycle.

So what do we get? A few dinosaurs are splashing about in a river, all looking like they’re having fun. Then we get a close-up of a dinosaur lying on the stones, resting. Next a dinosaur splashes out of the water and puts his foot on the head of the one lying down. The audience tensed in anticipation. Here we go, thought I, we’re about to get the Dinosaur wars and a little tableau of nature red in tooth and claw.

How wrong I was. The dinosaur held his foot on the head of his mate for a moment, then removed it and went for another merry paddle. The audience sighed with relief and chuckled. Next shot we were back with good ol’ Homo Sapiens and the American suburbs.

What a cop-out, thought I. No depiction of the carnivore wars, the ruthless battle for survival, the merciless circus that is “Mother Nature”, just a couple of Spielberg dinosaur orphans from the backlot of Jurassic Park paddling about in the drink. As if every living creature had a nice easy time of it, and anything bad that happened was an unfortunate accident. Malick must be going soft in his old age, I reflected, a suspicion confirmed by the extremely cheesy ending that I won’t reveal here.

In general, the movie is worth a watch, if only for the cosmic scenes, and I must admit that I do admire Malick’s artisitic integrity in always having made the kind of movies he’s wanted without pandering to the whims of the studios or the audience, but when it comes to a faithful rendering of Nature he ducks out here bigtime.


  1. This is a good post, but I actually haven´t seen this one. It goes to the list.

    Have you ever seen Mark Twain adventures? It´s a stop motion movie, and it has a good piece in it, called "the mystery stranger". It´s good and creepy, and it has some philosophical ramifications.

    (Ignore the subtitles!)

  2. Shadow - read The Mysterious Stranger online. I've been bugging the antinatalist community to do this for ages - it's far better than the film, with an amazing ending. There are just so many quotes you can take from it.
    I'll see about watching the Tree of Life myself when I can.

  3. @Shadow and estnihil. Thanks for the comments, guys. I must read the Twain novel; another friend also recommended it to me.

    After writing this post I came across a rare interview with Malick. He's discussing someone else's movie, but some choice quotes tell their own story:

    "It’s the gladness, the innocent quality it exudes…its humor is a celebration of innocence"

    "The ultra-realistic way in which nature is presented in that scene, with so many trees and birds, really appeals to me. It adds even more innocence to the scene and effectively symbolizes the purity of the girl and of her perception of the world."

    The journo concludes, "it is equally clear to me that although Terrence Malick may seem cloistered from the world, there is no question that he is also deeply in love with it."

    Ah. Maybe Malick should try parachuting into the Amazon at the dead of night without food or water and see how he gets on. Try watching Werner Herzog's 'Rescue Dawn' or any other of his great movies for a truer portrayal of nature.

  4. Thanks Karl. The tree of life is the tree that has all of us hanging from it in the end. How wonderful:)

  5. Ha, ha! Superb line, lifehater. And how true. Amazing how strong the branches of that tree are. Current estimates are that there are 106 billion people hanging off its branches, with another 7 billion waiting for their turn on the rope....