I had the chance to see Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life this past weekend, and I’ll start right away by saying that this is by no means a popcorn movie (although I did ironically buy a popcorn on my way in…). I had the chance to read some of the reviews of the film leading up to its general release, and the sense that I got from them was that this was very much an existential film; non-linear narrative, extremely figurative and symbolic imagery, and is a film that ultimately ends up asking more questions than it bothers to answer.
The names attached to the film are no doubt the reason that most will go to see it, and when thinking about this, I couldn’t help but feel like this film has a kindred spirit in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (which, incidentally, did indeed have Brad Pitt attached to in the early stages of its production).
Both films have big names (Pitt / Penn; Jackman / Weisz); both deal with the themes of death, loss, and grief in a rather abstract and existential manner; both have a very non-linear (and subjective) narrative structure; but most of all, both have absolutely stunning imagery. Not only that, but the visuals for both films are a result of much more traditional methods than one would initially be led to believe.
The Fountain’s visual effects were a result of filming the chemical reactions of various bacteria under a microscope. This is due to the director’s preference that CGI be used very sparingly, the axiom being that CG is quickly becoming the “easy way out.”
And it’s fitting in a way – the tiny universes created under a microscope being used to represent the vastness of the universe itself; the micro truly does mirror the macro. When I first read that the film used these methods in a review some years ago, I couldn’t help but think about Ray and Charles Eames’s Powers of Ten, and how the vast emptiness of space is then immediately juxtaposed with the vast emptiness of the atom: the macro and the micro.
I haven’t heard much about how the effects in The Tree of Life were produced, but in an interview last year with Vanity Fair, visual effects man Douglas Trumbull (who also worked as lead of VFX on Kubrick’s 2001) did allude to Malick’s dislike of CGI and Trumbull’s response of “Why not do it the old way? The way we did it in 2001?” I can only imagine that means an extensive use of physical models and the same traditional photographic wizardry that brought us 2001‘s Stargate sequence.
Incidentally, the images of the developing universe in The Tree of Life (of which I can find no screen caps of online to show you), feel like a visual evolution of Trumbull’s Stargate sequence. When watching the film, I also realized how they also remarkably resembled the look of Thomas Wilfred’s Opus 162, a perennial favorite of mine whenever I visit LACMA.
The Tree of Life, then, isn’t so much a film with a plot per se, but – rather like Wilfred’s Opus – a piece of art: it is a film that begs to be looked at. The plot and the images work in concert with one another, but it is ultimately the visuals that truly make this film.
Which brings us back to The Fountain. I remember very much enjoying the film after seeing it in the theatre not only for its story, but also for those gorgeous images. Unfortunately the rest of the movie-going public weren’t nearly as kind – the film ultimately went on to earn $15.9 million against its $35 million budget.
This was for a mixture of reasons, but the main one by far is that the plot overpowered the images: the film tried to say too much, and as a result, the beautifully crafted visuals were overwhelmed by the heavy-handedness of the story.
The Tree of Life seems to learn from these lessons – it has big names, but the performances are measured; Sean Penn probably has, at most, ten lines throughout the entire film, and even Pitt’s performance takes a backseat to the overall film itself. In this way, the theme is allowed to shine past the plot; the latter becomes secondary, and the subjective nature of the film is given room to thrive. Indeed, in a bit of fourth-wall breaking, Pitt’s character (speaking to his son in a slightly veiled Southern drawl) says: “Subjectivity. You know what that means? It means that you look at something and project your own interpretation onto it.”
Whereas The Fountain tends to speak its theme very loudly, The Tree of Life is barely a whisper. It is this silence – this stillness – that empowers the viewer and gives them a measure of emotional ownership over their viewing experience: the imagination is allowed to breathe.
In short: see The Tree of Life, if just for the gorgeous pictures. And if you do, learn from my mistakes and leave the popcorn at the door.