Don’t worry, there are no spoilers here. In fact, I’m having a hard time even imagining a spoiler for this film. I could tell you the whole thing and it wouldn’t change its impact.
But among film critics, this is a minority opinion.
“The only other film I’ve seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey and it lacked Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling,” they said. “The sheer beauty of this film is almost overwhelming, but as with other works of religiously minded art, its aesthetic glories are tethered to a humble and exalted purpose, which is to shine the light of the sacred on secular reality,” they said. “Shot with a poet’s eye, Malick’s film is a groundbreaker, a personal vision that dares to reach for the stars,” they said.
My wife and I finally got out to see The Tree of Life last night. I loved it. So did she. It was, for both of us, a two-hour-long prayer.
True to its title, The Tree of Life is explicit about its biblical roots. The opening quotation comes from the selfsame passage Julie, our pastor, preached on recently: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4,7). The pastor in the film preaches on Job and the central couple, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), lose a child. And, just as happened to old Job, Mrs. O’Brien is counseled by a well-meaning but insensitive acquaintance (it may have been her or Mr. O’Brien’s mother) who offers nothing but platitudes: “He’s in God’s hands now.” (Mrs. O’Brien’s response: “He always was.”)
Shortly after this scene, just as happened to Job, we are treated to expansive scenes of creation. But we get a bit more than Job did. The biblical writer knew of the starry firmament and of the beasts of the land, sea, and air, but we the 21st-century Jobs get more: cosmic evolution; the formation of the Milky Way and its spiral structure; the ignition of the Sun’s nuclear fire; the molten, churning mass that the Earth once was. We also see the development of life at its most rudimentary, molecular level; the emergence of life from ocean to land; several dinosaurs (Elasmosaurus, Parasaurolophus, and Troodon for those keeping score at home); and eventually primate and human life.
Many have expressed woe at the stark juxtaposition of late Cretaceous dinos and middle-class 1950′s Waco, but I’m good with it. Like the author of Job, Malick seems to know that nature — especially in its grandest and least human aspects, strangely — can be a sweet balm. Because it’s no longer about us. Ironically, this kind of perspective helps us to get through life with humor: What are we? It’s only life, after all.
Two quick things to say, both in response to comments made here at psnt.net over the last week. They both come from Brent White, a United Methodist minister and good friend (not trying to pick on you, Brent, really). In a post a few days ago I was meditating on the brutality evident in much of nature, including the series of global mass extinctions that have visited our planet over the last half-billion years (one of these extinction events, the one that did in the dinosaurs, was given a nod in The Tree of Life). I mused: If we are the intended end products of evolution (and this is assuming a lot), God has chosen a terribly violent and inefficient way to get us here. Brent responded:
I wonder if ascribing “violence” and “insane inefficiency” to creation isn’t simply reflecting our modern biases. Surely God wouldn’t have created us like this, we think. Buy why? Because we wouldn’t do it that way? Our interpretations of nature seem to be a bit anthropomorphic? Regardless, life is good all the way down the line. But life isn’t entitled. It’s all a gift at every moment.
I agree 100%. And the film is all about this gift. A major theme of both Job and The Tree of Life is that we’re not God. And it’s wrong of us to think of God as a cosmic but somewhat inept engineer. Heck, it would be wrong to think of God as a first-rate engineer. People are engineers; God is not an engineer. Oh, does this ever resonate in my poor apophatic bones.
Brent’s second comment came on the heels of a post that mentioned how an educated medieval person might view nature. He wrote,
I’m sure Creation was as awe-inspiring in 1311 as it is in 2011.
I can’t agree. From what little I know about the medieval worldview, the universe was then conceived as a grand but finite thing. Therefore knowledge, too, was thought of as finite, as necessarily limited. It is true that they thought of the universe as large and old but today’s universe overwhelms theirs in space and time and is far more dynamic that they could have even imagined.
My point is not that they were wrong. My point is that the physical universe — taken alone — as we know it today demands a larger God than it did — taken alone — in 1311. And I bet that the same goes for the 4th century BCE, when Job was probably composed.
A fact which is exploited beautifully in the updated story of Job found in The Tree of Life.