Thought Catalog

Tree of Life Needs More Dinosaurs

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So Tree of Life just ended—wait no it didn’t. There’s some more running around on a beach. There’s a mask floating in the ocean. Why’s there a mask floating in the ocean, Terrence Malick? Okay, so Tree of Life just ended—fuck, we’re back in space, and there’s the image of an undulating nebula thing. Is it done yet? It’s going… it’s still going… Okay, so it seriously just ended, and I have this tremendous sense of relief. I let out a huge sigh and look around at my friends for a reaction, but they seem just as confused, perhaps even astonished that Malick cared enough about the audience to give the film an ending, having felt that the movie might just transition into a ten hour planetarium show punctuated with additional creepy whispering. I awkwardly half-smile, shift my eyes back and forth, scratch the side of my head. I go over the movie in my mind. How am I going to react to this?

It would be easy to say this is a bunch of pretentious bullshit, a grandiose operatic (with opera even!) product of an out of control ego. I could make jokes about how the movie should’ve been called Sunlight Filtering Through Leaves because of the billion shots of sunlight filtering through trees, grass, behind people’s heads, sparkling in sprinklers, behind the earth—hell, even a scene where the sun swells up and devours the planet. In the way that Star Trek had a lens flare in nearly every shot, Tree of Life always has sunlight flickering behind something.

It would be easy to bring up the dinosaurs, all those CG dinosaurs. There’s an unintentionally hilarious scene where a velociraptor type dinosaur puts its foot on a dying dinosaur’s face, lets its foot off the face, then puts it back down on its face, then lifts it up and walks off. There’s another scene where a Loch Ness monster lays silhouetted on a beach, and he (or she maybe) swings a long rubbery neck toward the camera as it looks at a fat gash in its side, and then away in a gesture that can only say, “Seems bleak.” I seem to recall there’s another scene of a miniature triceratops running around in the woods, confused, lost maybe. Maybe I made it up.

It would be easy to bring up the endless section in outer space where you see a galaxy forming, a close-up of stars churning with rumbling bass noises, Hubble photos brought to life—all set to opera with the occasional whispered non sequitur. It made me think of Dune with all the whispered thoughts (“And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!”).

It would be easy to bring up Sean Penn. Did Terrance Malick really need an Oscar Award winning actor to portray a character who simply wanders around skyscrapers and rock fields looking sad and confused, saying almost nothing to anyone for the entire film?

It would be easy to say that the movie seems like a never-ending perfume commercial (“The new summer fragrance from Dior…Ennui™”). Or a jeans commercial for that matter.

It would be easy to bring up the epigraph from the Book of Job, another time-tested hallmark of pretentious art. I think of all the creative writing classes someone passed out a piece with an epigraph at the front, how it nearly always meant a thirty page story about a guy who sits on his roof and contemplates existence. I mean, if someone said, “Brad, write a parody of an art house film,” the resulting film would probably look something pretty similar to Tree of Life with its opera soundtrack, explicit symbolism (“So, like, the mom represents grace and the dad represents nature, and then the mask falling into the ocean represents our masks falling off at the end of our lives, and then…”, the deliberately crazy camera angles, and the random unnecessary dream imagery of the mother floating or in a glass coffin.

It would be easy to bring up all of these things, but I can’t dismiss it because the movie’s genuinely beautiful, profound, and I would’ve been completely thrilled by it if I’d seen it in, say, an art gallery. But in a movie theater, I sort of expected more entertainment or at least to be actively engaged for a majority of the duration. I didn’t expect that I would need to expend such a great deal of cognitive effort to interface with this goddamn movie for so long. There were approximately fifty times when I adjusted in my seat, looked around at my friends, and thought, ‘I’m watching a movie right now. It’s a “deep movie”, but I’ve become disengaged. I would like this experience to end now, but it’s going to keep going for a long time, and there’s no way to skip through to the end. I can only endure.’

I look at my friends as we exit the theater, trying to gauge the reaction. It’s important not to be seen as a philistine, but also not to be seen as a movie snob, someone desperate to appear artsy and intellectual by expressing one’s adoration for the highly wrought movie. No one wants to be the dumb one, the one who doesn’t like smart things, the one who maybe wants to go home and watch Night at the Museum, the one who enjoys Jeff Dunham and Kevin James, the one who probably hasn’t read a book for awhile.

“I liked the dinosaurs,” says someone.

“The dinosaurs were cool,” says someone else.

“During the time when there weren’t dinosaurs on the screen, I thought, ‘When are they going to show more dinosaurs?’”

“That was probably the most disappointing aspect of the movie. Not enough dinosaurs. The movie should’ve been called Not Enough Dinosaurs.”

“I was hoping for a scene where Brad Pitt’s yelling at the kids and then a dinosaur comes in and bites his damn head off.”

“Agreed. It needed a scene where one of the boys says, ‘I have a confession to make,’ and then he pulls off a mask to reveal a dinosaur head and says, ‘I’m actually a velociraptor. I hope this doesn’t make things weird between us.’”

“Not that it wasn’t a good movie,” I say. “But I’m glad that experience has come to an end.”

I wait for the other members of the group to submit their tentative ambiguous opinions, and, listening to them, I then feel more certain of my own opinion, can shape all my disparate feelings into an overall thesis that is neither dumb nor pretentious, but still authentic. I think, ‘It’s important to transcend the knee jerk reaction of, ‘That’s a bunch of bullshit,” and to remain open to artsy films.’ But man, sometimes, it’s so hard. TC mark

image – Tree of Life
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  • Brandon

    spoiler alert.

  • Gucci

    Oh Tree of Life is “deep” and “pretentious” and “beautiful” and
    “profound” and “artsy” and “grandiose”? I like when movie reviews are
    basically just a pastiche of words they heard in other reviews

  • Gucci

    Oh Tree of Life is “deep” and “pretentious” and “beautiful” and
    “profound” and “artsy” and “grandiose”? I like when movie reviews are
    basically just a pastiche of words they heard in other reviews

  • http://profiles.google.com/emil.rivera Emil Rivera

    seriously, this tittle kills me. I still need to watch the movie.

  • DARKSTAR

    A couple months ago my friends told me to watch Thin Red Line, citing it as one of their favorite movies of all time.  After watching it, all I could think was how hard it tried to be beautiful and I couldn't understand how my friends fell for such cheap smoke and mirrors. Since then, I've noticed the common dialogue about his movies goes between “It was boring and bullshit” to “You're just not appreciating how great his statements are.”  It's hard as a critic of Malick to make yourself not seem smug, but the problem with his movies is that they take themselves so seriously and are so fucking over dramatic that it's impossible to admire his work.  In the same way that I often feel desensitized to violence while watching most films, Malick's movies make me desensitized to art and beauty.  Funny, I guess.

  • Ella

    I just saw the movie last night and loved it (mostly because of its aesthetic beauty, Pitt's performance, and my own interest in the ways it explored religious questions) though I can certainly appreciate why others wouldn't, and wouldn't label them “dumb” for those opinions. I was most confused, though, by the way you feel you would have been “completely thrilled by it” if ONLY you had seen it in a gallery where the stated purpose was “art.” You bring up several – I think fair – criticisms of the movie itself
    (dinosaurs, Sean Penn), but then state that your only real problem with
    the film was the venue, which gave you a set of expectations in which
    you were disappointed. Tree of Life specifically aside, why can't movie theaters be appropriate venues for this kind of work? Isn't showing an “art film” in a movie theater a way of making it more accessible to the kind of audience that would never go to see it at a gallery, an attempt to tone down the pretension? I think the assumption that movies should only be for quote-unquote entertainment fuels the industry to put out the kind of repetitive, mediocre stuff that's on most summer screens right now – the Hangover II, anyone? (I mean, the first one was great, but any sequel to it couldn't be anything more than the exact same movie.) Why do people have more problems with movies that err on the side of “pretentious” than those that err on the side of “unoriginal and just generally shitty?”

    • http://twitter.com/neuroboy Chris Borger

      I just said the exact same thing to a friend I mine (I even use the same “[quote-unquote] entertained” comment). Ultimately, it's not a film that's actively trying to maintain your attention a la “summer movies”, and, for that reason, it takes a bit of effort to maintain your focus. I realized I felt weary and somewhat spent after Tree of Life in the same way that I feels worn out after three hours in a museum exhibit.

      Also, seeing this in a multiplex–though admirable to get it “out there” on a larger scale–brings with it certain expectations. If I'd seen this in a museum setting (say, the MFA or ICA here in Boston, for example) I think the initial impact would've been a little different given the venue. Whereas movies like The Hangover are like gorging on Pixie Sticks, films like Tree of Life are–to steal an analogy from Slate's Stephen Metcalf–the equivalent of “eating your vegetables” from a cultural standpoint. They're not always a kid's favorite part of the meal but they know it's good for them.

      [end rambling]

  • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    Sounds like “Jurassic Gump” . Good chuckles in your review;  it could well be that Malick has pulled a silly (it happens;  is CGI just too  tempting for some Auteurs' good?).  Watching “Badlands” is probably the thing to do now.

  • utuut4
  • wackomet

    To be fair, basically any movie could be improved by adding more dinosaurs

  • Right on.

    Perfect review. Fucking perfect… and hilarious. Loved the movie but damn, really?! Dinosaurs?!

  • ere211
  • ere211
  • wwo916
  • newreader

    hahahha this was a fucking brilliant review/post. saw the movie last night and was enthralled during the 20 out of 140 minutes that involved the cosmos and dinosaurs – probably the best dinosaur renderings ive seen to date (yes, better than Jurrasic Park). but the rest of the movie involved a kid making a sour face and whispering and hugging his brother, the mom saying probably less than 10 lines the whole movie and hugging and kissing EVERYBODY, and then brad pitt being a dick to his kids and then – you guessed it – huggging and kissing them. I dont care if theyre family no one acts that way…. anywho ive seen a terrence malick movie now and know theyre not for me. Wonderful post – i agree with you – time to watch Team America again….

  • Aidan55

    Great review – I would substitute the word 'entertainment' with 'engagement' and the tone would be more potent. I don't get lens flares in a movies of this sort – all I can think every time is – MISTAKE. I know all the film school theories about flares – they don't convince. That Levi's ad – outtakes.

  • Aleck

    I loved “Thin Red Line” and could not wait to see “The Tree of Life”.  This review summarizes my impression as well.  As a father of two sons, I could definitely relate to the movie and appreciate its points.  For the 30 minutes of the movie that actually made sense.  I think when it comes to DVD, I'll watch it again and fast forward through the space/dinosaurs scenes to see if I can stay engaged.

  • BJones

    It's a beautiful film.Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Malick is like David Lynch or Kubrick.
    One either loves their films or not. They're not for everyone. Thank God for that. But for the review -The reviewer should consider not reviewing. Really bad writing man. Not funny, witty, sarcastic or interesting. Lame, really lame.

    • Bpike53199

      I'm sorry you had that reaction to my article. You must be much smarter than me to enjoy this deep movie, and I wish I could have shared that enjoyment. Please email me a list of writing tips. I would be so interested to read them. In the meantime, I will try to be more sarcastic for you.

    • Bdoing

      I like how you started this off with “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion”, and then proceeded to tell him why he’s not entitled to express his.

    • Pandy

      Sean Penn, as the reviewer stated, did not need to be in this movie.  He
      walked around the whole time as if his Valium prescription had run out
      yesterday and he had another twenty-five days until it could be refilled.

            I thought the review could not have been more accurate.  Not to mention, it is hysterical and made me not just chuckle and make that face that expresses slight amusement, but actually laugh out loud and tell my friends to read it.  What on Earth was Malick thinking when he made this? He tried way too hard. So many clich@font-face {
      font-family: “Cambria”;
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      }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }és.  And furthermore, what was DeNiro thinking when he chose this? If you can write down 20 plausible reasons this film was entirely reasonable and “made sense,” I will find you, and suck your dick.  Yes, I do believe Brad Pitt’s performance was phenomenal, it reminded me much of my father growing up. His talent is undeniable.  And the rest of the cast did a wonderful job as well…However, i feel like so much of that movie could have been extracted and it would have been a great film.  If it stuck to the actual story I would most likely purchase this on DVD, but i don’t feel like watching an hour compilation of “The Best of: Planet Earth” with the narration replaced by Gregorian-fucking-chant. However, I guess I am not smart or “good” enough to get this ridiculous piece.  Let me leave you with a joke:  How many indie kids does it take to screw in a light bulb?….It’s a pretty obscure number, you’ve probably never heard of it. 

      • Pandy

        i don’t know what happened here….fuck it
         

    • Ljohnson219

      and you should consider not reviewing film reviews.  On account of how your a dickhead.

  • Jamie

    Perhaps if you'd like to see more dinosaurs you could rent Jurassic Park?

  • calymo

    Your synopsis couldn't have been more spot on to what I was experiencing and thinking during and after The Tree of Life except for having to 'adjust' myself, I'd say I'm with you 100% which is good because I'm not quite sure I can put an articulate thought around the last 2.5 hours of my life.  Thanks!

  • Gdad

    “Tree of Life” is, no doubt, a pretentious art house movie.  Some beautiful cinematography, very authentic recreation of middle-American neighborhoods, daily life, spot on wardrobes, etc.  Meets “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the National Geo cable channel.  Already the string of comments reflects the usual dialectic; those who want to defend a precious, self-important movie like this in the name of “art” and the honorable tradition of making a self-conscious, anti-plot, ant-commercial statement in film, versus those who want to call bullshit on what seems to be an “auteur” showing us “meta-movie” skills.  The fact that Penn and Pitt chose to do the movie I think is perhaps somewhat of a defense for it; however, anyone who has seen what Sean Penn can do with a script, a character to play, and a dramatic edge–well, this just isn’t that rewarding.

    This also will just produce fodder for the defenders, but I saw this movie with my son, who attends Art Center for Design in Pasadena (so he knows a fair amount about art, artistic expression, art talent, and, in fact, pretentious artists), and we saw the movie at a well-known art house theater in Pasadena.  Half-way through the film, two people in front of us had already left, and a few minutes later four more people behind us bailed.  It’s very easy again to use that as ammunition to defend the movie–of course, the ignorant American commercial film light weights can’t handle an “authentic” piece of filmic art–but even a self-proclaimed and self-conscious  “art film” needs editing, and this film, sort of a filmic graphic novel with very terse, elliptical dialogue, is too long given it’s lack of original story and central conflict.

    Yes, the father is a typical middle-American brute, to his three sons and wife, and in a trite and tired denouement, he gets his commupance when he is laid off his job “at the plant”.  The Willie Loman story retold while on acid.

    I actually enjoy a lot of Kubric’s work, and I can get into non-linear plot renderings, David Lynch is fine with me, and some of my favorite parts of this movie were the straight up shots of the outdoors, the woods, rivers, big trees in filtering sunlight, etc.  But I was more curious to see what my 20-year old son would say, and similar to the seed piece author I was having those post-art movie qualms about what to say and not wanting to affect my son’s take on the movie.  He said, as we walked down hallway:  “The dinosaurs were really cool.  But I’d let someone defecate (sic) in my face before I’d see that movie again.”

    You better really be into long, slow, ponderous art movies if you’re going to have a chance to appreciate this movie.

  • KevinK

    The reviewer makes a good case for the proliferation of short attention span entertainment such as the two to five minute popular music single (and I like a lot of popular music!).  But really, it would be funny to watch them try and sit through a Mahler symphony, which at their longest are about an hour shorter than this film.  To think that audiences used to be willing to do this on a regular basis is quite a statement really.  I do agree with some of the observations that the reviewer made regarding some of the scenes of the film, but one recommendation to look more credible might begin with spelling the director’s name correctly…just a thought.

    • Bmpaul02

      That had to be the most pretentious & petty response ever. Winner.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YSYZH2JLF6TYN76KA27RGPA2KI SpikeLee3000

    The never-ending perfume commercial observation is spot-on; I was thinking the same thing whenever Sean Penn would be seen listlessly traipsing around the desert.  It also made me think of old Enya music videos and Windows XP wallpaper options, but I won’t get into that.

    The dinosaurs are what lead me to your post.  I take issue with the whole montage showing the galaxy forming, jellyfish, dinosaurs, asteroid, etc.  It was just too much.  I understand that it’s an art film, but less people would have bailed mid-screening if this sequence was left on the cutting room floor.  I know that this observation will trigger a knee-jerk “let them leave!” response, but a truly engaging movie should have pacing, regardless of its intended audience.

    As for the rest of the film, I enjoyed it.  The people I was with – not so much.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ray-Nieves/100000749683917 Ray Nieves

    I loved the film, but I must say this review was funny.

  • Bmpaul02

    This reminded me of a favorite quote by way of Frisky Dingo, “Here’s and idea, indicate north! Otherwise it’s not really a map. Technically it’s just a drawing.” There is no central narrative. It was just a really nice, well timed, power point presentation.

  • Healing Soundscapes

    I saw the movie yesterday and it IS hard to wrap your brain around it – however I found the dinosaur scene magical – in that the ferocious velociraptor could have easily eaten the other dinosaur – but made a conscious decision NOT to – instead it showed compassion by placing its foot on the other dinosaur and ending it’s life…and then walking away…this concept of a dinosaur showing compassion will not leave my mind – it is the singular most amazing concept I’ve run across in a long time – expanding my mind to imagine that MAYBE what we know of dinosaurs is not everything…and this scene goes in keeping with the film’s theme – “love everything and everyone”.  But in keeping with the reviewer’s thoughts – I also think some dinosaurs at the end on the beach would have been good also!  LOL

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