When Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was released earlier this year, audiences’ and critics’ reactions were varied. While some people dismissed the film as overlong, pretentious and presumptuous, others praised it as a beautiful cinematic approach to the miracle of life itself. Claims that Malick’s breaking of any real narrative structure destroyed any form of suspense were often refuted by the line “It’s just a film that’s ahead of its time. The same thing happened to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 – ten years later, people loved it”. Even renowned American critics Peter Travers and Roger Ebert made that connection, so it’s worth taking a look at it. Is the comparison justified or are Malick fans just trying to buy their hero’s latest opus a little time?
I admit that my approach to the matter is purely subjective and, in some ways, biased. However, I hope I will be able to address the important issues with some degree of objectivity. With that said, we will need to take a closer look at the films in question before we ask ourselves whether they can and should be compared to each other. Because of that, this text will contain some references that could be considered spoilers, although both of these movies are basically highly elaborate streams of consciousness, so calling plot revelations “spoilers” might be a bit of a stretch.
Let’s start with The Tree of Life. Let me tell you upfront that I am not one of the fans of this film. I have not seen any other of Terrence Malick’s works either, but I am somewhat familiar with his style and the continuing elements in his canon. These – replacing dialogues with voiceovers, relying on the power of imagery, hinting at a great power behind the façade of life – are abundant in The Tree of Life, if not to say over-abundant. There are three parts to it: sequences of HD images roughly retelling the development of life; Sean Penn walking through a present-day metropolis trying to come to terms with his memories of his dead brother; and his childhood in 1950s Texas living in fear of his authoritative father, expertly played by Brad Pitt. The problems I have with this movie are of the personal as well as the “objective” kind. I think that, for a movie supposedly dealing with life (and, to a lesser degree, the universe and everything), everything is incredibly vague, in the sense that it doesn’t really draw you in. Or at least it didn’t draw me in. The imagery is nice – I always get a kick from seeing supernovae and those eerie nebulas – but it doesn’t further the movie’s cause much. And due to the extravagant soundtrack consisting largely of arias, the whole thing can get rather silly at times. There are moments when The Tree of Life almost seems like a parody of auteur cinema.
My personal problems with it on the other hand are pretty mundane: I’m an Atheist, with a capital “A”. Hearing the whispered voiceovers in this film condemning the “Way of Nature” (What does that even mean?!) and praising the vague “Up there and beyond there is something” mentality of Middle America, I get slightly hot under the collar. Then again, I wouldn’t call Malick’s film religious per se – more spiritual – but I just don’t connect with that submissive philosophy in general.
Despite these criticisms, however, I will take care in analysing the movie’s value when reaching my final conclusion. But now you may understand what I meant at the beginning when I said “biased”. And you will understand even more when I tell you that I love 2001: A Space Odyssey. It speaks to me in ways The Tree of Life never could; philosophically, narratively and, yes, emotionally. Stanley Kubrick might not be my favourite director ever (although he’s fairly high on the list) but he is certainly among the ones I admire very much. What’s great about 2001 is that I never felt alienated during that movie – although Kubrick and co-author Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the source material, a short story, and who turned it into a novel later, explicitly wanted their viewers to leave the cinema with questions rather than with answers. The whole film circles around “the monolith”, a black, domino-shaped something, reminiscent of a modernistic tombstone, that pops up in different places of time and space. For instance, it seems to turn early primates into the creative being we call “man” (in the brilliant and seminal “Dawn of Man” sequence). In the end, it transports the movie’s main human character “beyond the infinite” where he sees himself age and die, still reaching for the mysterious monolith. The movie also features the iconic spaceship computer HAL 9000, which kills off the better part of the ship’s crew because that’s the most efficient way to fulfill the mission.
It’s true that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a complex film. I don’t think there’s anyone who understands everything the first time around. Especially the last 20 minutes will have you scratching your head for a good long while afterwards. But I love how this movie challenges me to think for myself. What is the monolith? What does it stand for? Why are there several ones? Where do they come from? Other aspects are worth pondering too: Is HAL 9000, a machine of pure reason, the apex of man’s technological nature? If so, is this what humans themselves will ultimately become? I will not even try to answer these questions, for if I do I would undermine the whole purpose of the movie.
So. Are 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life comparable – regardless of what I, and you for that matter, think of them? They are similar in many ways, that’s certainly true. Both sport a slow, steady narrarive, thus creating an atmosphere not entirely unlike meditation. Both juxtapose nature and progress. Both hint at Leibniz’s theodicy. And both are to some extent interested in “what the world contains in its innermost heart and finer veins”. But there is one crucial difference in how the two films approach these themes, one that illustrates why, at least for me, 2001: A Space Odyssey succeeds and The Tree of Life fails. Malick is looking for answers, we all do, but he put his interpretation on film. Kubrick, while still aiming fairly high, doesn’t quite go that far: he merely asks the questions and shows the quest of humankind for the answers; he doesn’t try to give them. Kubrick’s film chronicles man’s “curse” of being able to ponder the meaning of life by showing his characters struggling to reach, or even comprehend, the ultimately inaccessible monolith. That’s probably why The Tree of Life seemed somewhat empty to me. It’s a film putting a thesis across; philosophical questions might spring from it but they are overshadowed by the movie itself.
And that is why I don’t think that Malick’s film will “ripen” with time. I don’t think people who don’t like it will see something more in it in ten years’ time. Comparing The Tree of Life to 2001: A Space Odyssey in that respect is, to me, just another way of calling the film’s critics Philistines for not equalling ambition with brilliance.