‘So,’ thinks Terrence Malick one fine day. ‘I’d really like a piece of that 2001: A Space Odyssey pie. The whole transcendent-exploration-of-man’s-ascent-from-the-brutal-natural-world-to-a-more-graceful-spiritual-plane thingy, I like that, I’d like to make a film with some of that going on.’ And why not? It’s been a while. Nice idea.
To recap, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey begins with a pre-history Dawn Of Man sequence, showing apes getting to grips with tools and committing the first murder. There's then a comparatively contemporary sequence which provides the meat of the narrative, showing man’s conflict with that which he creates. Then it’s on to the trippy stuff – an open-ended spiritual conclusion that suggests an ascendance to another level of consciousness.
We get essentially the same structure from Malick’s Tree Of Life, only it feels nowhere near as intellectually rigorous; it's more of a soothing aesthetic bubble bath - hop in and have a lovely soak in essence of life. The pre-history sequence, an impressionistic montage of the micro and macrocosmic natural world, is stunningly presented and – by virtue of the fact that it goes back beyond the dawn of man to an earlier stage in our planet’s life – arguably tackles a more ambitious conceptual sweep than 2001: A Space Odyssey. But only in the same way that an infinite all-you-can-eat buffet could be said to exceed the ambition of a precision-picked a la carte menu.
There's a deliberate lack of control here, an attempt to offer us life, the universe and everything, where in the final analysis, the role of both filmmaker and philosopher is as much about what you choose not to say. We can and should admire Malick's ballsiness here. However, it is scale and structure that would give the cornucopia of organisms, their lifecycles and their habitats a semiotic significance for the viewer - and there's little value placed on such data in Malick's magical mystery prelude. This trait will, of course, be a plus point for many viewers.
The majority of the film’s 139 minute runtime is a prettily shot look at the life of a family of five in 1950s Waco, Texas. This section is overloaded with an ethereal voiceover which sounds like it has escaped from a life coach’s self-help tape - even before you focus on what is actually being said (or breathily whispered): “There are two ways through life: the way of Nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.”
The cinematic touchstone here is surely the teacher in Donnie Darko who informs her students: “The lifeline is divided into two polar extremes, fear and love. Fear is in the negative energy spectrum, and love is in the positive energy spectrum.” Does Malick mean us to take this sort of stuff at face value? Perhaps not (in which case why it is here? Spiritual red herring? Transcendental linguistic MacGuffin?). But if meant seriously, the extremely talented director of Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World may have strayed into a period of his career analogous to The Beatles' dalliance with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Malick would appear to be experimenting with ideology that might be tolerable to robust adults who know their own limits, but to which you wouldn't want impressionable school children exposed.
Voiceovers aside, performances in this section are uniformly excellent (especially that of Brad Pitt as the authoritarian father) but since the actors are not given much character or decent dialogue to work with, their strength here is a testament to their mastery of their craft. It’s a wonder these ciphers even have names; you suspect an early script may have boasted a list of roles reading Father, Mother, The Bad Son, The Good Son, and Other Biblical Archetypes.
Although the Bible's Book of Job is referenced several times, this family actually feels like a throwback to Europe’s medieval Morality plays (cosmic in scope and with similar realism of character; a typical list of players might read Pity, Freewill, Knowledge and so on). These Morality plays frequently tracked the passage of stock characters from natural, sinful fallibility to a state of grace, delivered by the mysterious power of Grace itself. Malick’s maternal character (played by Jessica Chastain) also represents "the way of Grace", while her more human sons are free to choose wrongly. They can't help but feel about as one-dimensional as their 15th century antecedents as they ascend gracefully to the film's last act.
In this final spiritual chapter, characters reunite on what can only be described as a beach of souls. As a culmination of an emotional arc this could have felt emotionally transcendent, but such engagement as we’ve been permitted thus far falls squarely outside the realm of character-driven emotion, and into the arena of sensory spectacle and representative character types playing out a conflict of ideas. All of which is not conducive to feeling anything very much about these characters meeting again in heaven/purgatory/a hallucination/Neverland. Like a Rorschach test, you can bring your owns ideas about our place in the world to the table here, and many intelligent people will do so (more power to them), but our collective dialogue isn't meaningfully extended by the ideas the film itself presents. Possibly it reinforces our awareness that finding any sort of path through life is a pretty overwhelming business, but this is not a terribly radical conclusion.