"In the beginning the Universe was created.
"This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move."
-- Douglas Adams (1952 - 2001)
WARNING For CONCERNED PARENTS Before We Get Rolling: This review will contain language that refers to gross things that happen in nature and that will happen to your children because of nature and that, depending on their age, you ought to have explained to them by now because they are pretty alarming when you aren't expecting them.
Oh, boy. Where do I begin? Where do WE, dear reader, begin with this one? This thing called "Tree of Life", that we are gathered here today to get through?
This is the kind of deeply strange movie that just begs to be discussed. If we are absurdly lucky, such a film gains some mainstream attention and a wider range of discussions. Though one might argue whether, in this case, it is the film itself or the many and varied opinions it prompted that are more fun. (Indeed, some of the online reviews once "Tree of Life" was made available to a much wider audience through it's DVD release are almost sublime. This is largely because you really wouldn't know what you are getting into with this movie unless you've been reading up about it since the beginning.)
There's an awful lot to unpack here. This is the kind of movie where Sean Penn, who is upset for... some reason, travels up an elevator in a tall and beautifully photographed building mostly made of glass. Upon reaching the top floor, Sean finds that he is... dreaming? In Heaven? At any rate, all the people in the story who died are there on a beach. But so are the people who are still alive, sometimes with younger versions of themselves. They all go in the water. There are gulls. There is a carnival mask in the water. Then Sean travels back down the elevator and walks outside the building. And he doesn't say anything but it is easy to read in his expression the sentiment, "Well. That happened."
We all know what those kinds of movies are like, right?
The bulk of the film is taken up by the Sean Penn character remembering his childhood and his relationship with his brothers and especially with his parents. Especially, and in excruciating detail, his relationship with his parents. (If you are wondering, yes, this is where Brad Pitt is involved. The film has a scene that is practically gift-wrapped for us not-crazy "Fight Club" fans.) One parent is loving and gentle and kind all the time with no flaws, the other preaches tough love and Sean-As-A-Lad's opinion of this parent could write the lyrics to a million Linkin Park songs.
You win no prize for guessing which parent fills what roll. More on that in a bit.
"There are two ways through Life," intones the first (audible) narration, "the way of Nature and the way of Grace". But this being a Terrence Malick film, and knowing that Malick loves nature and especially loves showing his sad little human characters wandering oblivious through the beauty around them, I already called baloney on this theory. The film never comes to a definite conclusion on this issue, and all things considered, I guess that's for the better.
Anyway, characters make bold, barely audible or whispered statements like this about Life, the Universe, and Everything all through the movie. And the sh*t-youself gorgeous onscreen images that this narration intrudes on are, I suppose, meant to be taken as Answers. Sure, why not?
Grace, we are assured, is all beauty and faith and kindness and self-sacrifice and emotion and female Other-ness. Nature, on the other hand, is out for itself, is brutal, violent, and Daddy Issues. Once again, given that this is Terrence "The World Is Just Awesome" Malick, this is baloney... up to a point.
So... yeah... whaddaya say we talk a little bit about the sexual politics in this here movie? Because being a viewer with a uterus, they... bugged me a little. Just a little tiny bit. Okay so obviously father represents Nature and mother stands in for Grace. Father never does anything truly awful, but he is hated and almost vilified, while mother... ah, mother, mother, mother. The paragon of female sainthood and the only major female in the whole shebang. She can do absolutely no wrong and exists for no other reason than to LOVE in all-caps, bold typeface, and red crayon. She is a mysterious nurturer, healer, and bringer of life.
As a reminder, we women, we mysterious Others, as part of the whole "bringer of life" deal also, among other slightly more nuanced things than what is portrayed in this film, hemorrhage gore and blood out of our uteruses periodically. During this time, and mostly because this process is as painful and upsetting as you might assume, we can be angry, we can even be violent, and we can be utterly out for ourselves.
I bring this up because I wish that this film, whose title alludes to one of the icons of biology, approached it's characters a little more... well, everything really. Hell, they're barely even characters; they're talking symbols. (By the way, dear male readers who are being utter sissies about that last paragraph. Deal widdit. Cause I do. Every month.)
The flashbacks to Sean-As-A-Lad take up the great bulk of the film.
(Long awkward pause...)
Yeah, I know, right?!? I was made to expect the whole history of life on Earth and maybe a tiny dramatization of the family and how their story measures against the astonishing tale of life! Well, it turns out that History of Life sequence lasts, at my most optimistic estimate, maybe a grand total of fifteen-twenty minutes! And it's only about a half-hour in! So for me, the film suffers from premature ejaculation, a man-problem that is also upsetting and disgusting (but not as gory. Usually.)
Let's talk about that sequence, fellow paleo-geeks. Briefly, Terrence, I am disappoint. Had I know you were just going to do a *shorter* History of Life on Earth than "Fantasia", well...!
Breaking things down, we get about ten minutes of the formation of the Solar System and Earth, a couple seconds each of single-celled life, early multicellular life, jellyfish, corals, ect. There's a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of an early tetrapod -- and suddenly a swan-necked elasmosaurus, some sharks, and the much-ballyhooed CGI dinosaurs.
The dinosaurs are in the movie for a minute. Maybe a minute and a half. They look perfectly fine I suppose, except for the silly-looking, silly-acting Unidentifiable Theropod. But after that minute and a half the film is totally done with them. Actually, it's done with nonhumans in general, and we're zipped forward to modern times and the story of the boring-ass family. Yeah, I had a bit of a problem with this.
So... A film that wants to show how us humans fit in with the entire history of life, except it really, really doesn't, to the point where the gorgeous nature shots end up being just strange. And it takes place in a world where men are tough, women are wimpy, and little boys do really weird things with dresses (do I even want to know what was going on in that whole scene? Cause I don't even know.)
That said, its a truly beautiful film. And I liked the music. And man oh man I wish the History of Life sequence had gone on much longer, because for all its flaws that part is indeed gorgeous. The film is also so relentlessly "arty" that part of me cannot wait to parody it whenever the opportunity comes up.
Sketch of the Day
The Teal Deer version of this review. Click for huge:
I am going to be very busy indeed early this winter so this is as good a time as any to make an announcement. When this blog turns three years old (this coming January), I will be changing the format EVER so slightly.
Instead of making myself write at least two new posts a week on specific days, I'm relaxing my own self-imposed schedule. I'll still have at least one new thing per week/a grand total of at least fifty-two posts per year, I promise, but it will come whenever I can write about it.
I should note that the original "Make myself post something every M/W/F or T/Tr every week unless I am very definitely unable to" schedule was to get me conditioned so that NOT having new posts each week would feel weird and wrong. (It worked. Oh boy, did it ever.) And I did this because when I was a young newcomer to the Internet, I would find awesome websites that looked fascinating and unlike anything else out there -- and that never updated. I didn't want my website to wind up like that and I still promise it won't.
So all in all, it will be a little change, but one that will lower my blood pressure a tad.