The Tree of Life – Terence Malick

I had the misfortune of seeing this film within 24 hours of Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void. I think this might have prejudiced me against the film from the start. It is better than Enter The Void, but pretty much as empty. Whereas Noé filled his drugs trip with completely pointless, meandering dialogue, Malick took the high road and filled The Tree of Life with overtly meaningful lines that are equally pointless.

Malick makes the key mistake of opening the film well, laying it on thick with the Vietnam telegram (in complete contrast to The Messenger’s scenes) before wandering off somewhere. For some inexplicable reason, he treats the audience to fifteen minutes of shots straight out of a BBC nature documentary. Well, if those documentaries were filmed on less than a shoestring. The problem is that most of the time you see these things, someone is telling you what is going on over the top. The baffling natural spectacle makes sense that way, and it satisfies our curiosity about it all. Instead, there’s waffle. The kind of ethereal waffle that is so lofty as to bore the average viewer to tears, but likely provide a guiding light to simpletons.

The uncomfortable fact is that half the people sitting through this were, like me, more interested in trying not to make a noise while eating popcorn through the erratic yet prolonged silences. Seriously, it’s like a bloody minefield. One minute your hand is pulling a few kernels out, ready to eat under the cover of a volcanic eruption, the next moment the sound of each kernel scraping along the drum-like sides of the popcorn packet reverberate through the cinema, spoiling what is obviously intended to be a moment nearing on religious ecstasy. While a moon rises or something.

Oh, and then there’s the CGI dinosaurs. Yes, somehow, somewhere, someone, in fact a whole team of people, did not look at footage of some (barely above Jurassic Park 3 level) CGI dinosaurs pissing about in a forest and say “That looks like complete bollocks.” After a couple of minutes waiting for someone, somewhere, to start talking about their species, or for Bob Peck to come and shoot them with a shotgun, they go away. That’s it. You just put CGI dinosaurs on a film screen and dragged any pretence of the film’s respectability kicking and screaming into an early grave, for what? Whatever possessed Malick to do this is beyond me. Not just because it’s dinosaurs, but because they look so goddamn cheap. The epic nature doc stuff might be pointless, but it is also visually incredible. Conversely, the dinosaurs look like they were knocked up for some PS3 game that never made it past the rumour level at E3.

And then it’s over. And if, like me, you wonder where the last quarter hour of your life just went, I’m sorry to say, it’s never coming back. The problem is that this is film making at its most gluttonous. For a film thick with religious symbolism, it’s also quite disappointing. By the time the actual story starts, Malick has wasted a good quarter hour (that feels double that length). In contrast, the Bible managed to get most of the way there in a paragraph, AND it managed to skip the dinosaurs.

2 people walked out at this point and they missed the kinda nice story with Brad Pitt and some kids. I say kinda nice story because, well, it’s a kinda nice story. Kids grow up. Their dad is a meanie. Their mum is nice. They find out about death. Some bits and pieces happen that have the audience looking at the screen with self-contented hindsight (DDT spraying). The point about this is that it is all completely normal and pretty much every character is pulled out of some book of stereotypes to throw together.

I get that he’s trying to point out how epic childhood and existence is, and he does this with the skill of an auteur. The problem is that the pieces he starts out with are so clunky that it’s hard to produce anything meaningful. And it’s here, at the end of the film, that this lack of any meaning is not just shoved in the audience’s face, as it is repeatedly beaten into it by a baseball bat. I do not know what possessed Malick to finish a multi-million dollar film with a Calvin Klein commercial, and I suppose I never will. At least the people that make all those “Epic Movie” pisstakes will only have to reproduce South Park’s “gay cowboys eating ice cream” sketch to send up the film. Having said that, a shot of gay cowboys eating ice cream would have more meaning to it than one of Sean Penn pillocking about on a beach with all the film’s extras.

The worst part of this film is that it posthumously makes me reconsider The Thin Red Line in a negative light. I remember when that film came out at school, and all my friends hated it because it was more talking than shooting which is not what kids want at the age of fifteen. The Thin Red Line was a good film. But after watching this film, I can’t help but think that half the meaning imbued in The Thin Red Line was really a function of its subject, rather than Malick’s innate genius.

So, to recap, instead of watching a combined five hours of meandering tedium (though both films are probably the most visually stunning films I’ve seen recently) I’d rather have watched Die Hard for the _n_th time.