*excluding other Malick flicks
Director: Terrence Malick
Harsh dad: Brad Pitt
Oldest kid: Hunter McCraken
Kid as an adult: Sean Penn
Lovely: Jessica Chastain
B-list dinosaur: parasaurolophous
The movie's parents are Roots and Leaves of Grass.
So let's break down Tree into some (kindling) characteristics.
1. Chunks of story that add up to an unexplained whole that the viewer must understand on his/her own (or in his or her own way)
2. Poetic, lyrical shot selection (each shot infused with subtext; beauty)
3. Heavy use of classical music
4. Existentialism via an advent (in Tree's case: Earth and the O'Brien family) and a cataclysm (asteroid and death)
5. Galactic scope
6. Runs the emotional spectrum
7. Never compromises with the viewer
8. Not 3D, and ops for real effects over CGI (when it can). http://www.wired.com/underwire/2011/06/tree-of-life-douglas-trumbull/weeblylink_new_window
9. When transitioning, returns to a strange, flame-like object
10. Brad Pitt is not what he thinks he should have been (a musician), and it affects his whole family
11. Surveys childhood
So what two movies could possibly birth this sort if film.
Godfather + Fight Club = no
Amadeus + Rugrats Go To Paris = no
I could have fun with wrong combinations all day.
Father: 2001: A Space Odyssey
If you haven't seen either, there's no point in my trying to explain either film to you. Like Tree, these are films that demand (watering and sunlight) viewing.
But if you've seen both, you should see the resemblances immediately.
I created a list citing the similarities (and justifying the differences), but I don't think it's necessary. If you have watched 2001 or Fantasia, all comparisons are obvious.
(Well, except that Brad Pitt and H.A.L. are the same character. Both make errors that scar them--Pitt not being a musician, H.A.L. not getting a prediction right--and affect those dependent on them (Pitt's family; H.A.L.'s crew). And the "flame" is reminiscent to when Fantasia transitions by showing the orchestra).
If you haven't watched Fantasia or 2001, well, my telling you about tiny details isn't going to do much for you.
Part II: The Twist
The one thing I will point out is this: Kubrick's 2001 is a terribly icy film. So you might be wondering how the two compare when Tree is over-ripe with feeling. J. R. Jones, from the Chicago Reader, answers this question well: "...and in fact The Tree of Life often feels like a religious response to Stanley Kubrick's cold, cerebral view of our place in the universe." The son does not always become the father, so to speak.
Now, I'm going to take the father/son metaphor one step further.
James Berardinelli, of ReelViews, said: "Striving for no less than the pinnacle of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life falls short of masterful but retains a power that far too many motion pictures lack. [A little later in the piece:] Also, early in the proceedings, there is a 15-minute interlude that depicts the creation of Earth, the beginnings of life, the era of the dinosaurs, and the events presaging the rise of man."
2001 has 4 parts. The first part is called "The Dawn of Man" and stars ape-like early hominids. 20-minutes later, the film jumps millions of years from this prehistoric time where humans have just discovered how to use a bone as a club to outer space and space stations. The rest of the film takes place in this space-faring future.
Malick's film predates the dawn of man by showing the big bang, the Earth's formation, dinosaurs, and the meteor strike that killed the dinosaurs. It then anchors to the O'Brien's in Waco, Texas, in the 1950's. (With some skips to the modern day).
Splice these and you have: the birth of the universe, the birth of earth, the birth of humans, the birth of the O'Brien family, modern civilization, future civilization, and transcendency.
I know I spent the first part of this inquiry making the case that 2001 is the father of Tree, and it is, influentially, but, as a film, it's the son.
2001 has two time periods: way-back-in-B.C., and 2001 (but, we can say 2001 isn't actually the year 2001 but "the future").
Tree has two periods too: way before the dawn of man, and the immediate past
As you can see, both periods of Tree predate 2001.
I say all this because I want you to see that The Tree of Life is Mr. O'Brien. And 2001: A Space Odyssey is, the son, Jack O'Brien. Even though 2001 was made 43 years before Tree, Malick has positioned the narrative of his film in a way that makes 2001 a response rather than a stimulant. Whether Malick's or Kubrick's film is better isn't the question. The question is: if you think Tree is better, how do you then view 2001? Or. If you think 2001 is better, how do you view Tree?
These movies are, I think, from this point forward, inseparable.
"What about Fantasia?"
Fantasia, like Chastain, is outside the main conflict. Is supportive and reassuring and everything you need it to be. But it's influence isn't as dramatic or drastic.
Clarifying Some Questions:
Berardinelli says several times that he thinks the creation of the universe segment is throw-away. In case you're one of the viewers that agrees, I'd like to make this point: in the film, the creation of the universe mirrors the O'Brien family. There's the big bang (Pitt and Chastain getting married, having a baby), followed by the Earth's formation (Jack as a baby), then the dinosaur times (Jack's childhood, which makes up a majority of the film), and then the meteor strike that changes the entire face of the Earth. What was the aftermath of the meteor? It killed the dinosaurs, begot the ice age that formed the glaciers which reshaped the entire world, and made way for the mammalian boom (since there were no longer dinosaurs). The death of the brother, the opening scene of the film, is the equivalent of the meteor strike.
If we just saw the drama of the O'Brien family, we would treat the movie as a drama, as a story to watch and enjoy. By including the creation of the universe, Malick gives us an analog from which we can make the statement: every life mirrors the genesis of the universe. One must then check the statement by asking a question: does my life mirror the creation of the universe: a bang created me, I grew, then catastrophe occurred and changed me forever (and I don't care who you are, disaster will strike. Maybe it already has. If so, you know. If it hasn't, you will know.)
Without the creation segment, the film would lack the dimension that makes it relevant.
Also: the question "does my life mirror the creation of the universe?" leads to the next question of "what was the asteroid that ended my innocence?" which leads to the question "how have I reacted?"
Would you exist if the meteor hadn't hit? Would dinosaurs still rule? Say humans had managed to evolve regardless of dinosaurs continued dominance, would we live in a better world? Which is another way of asking: do you like who you are now? If so, can you regret the event that formed you? If you don't like who you are, why not?
Berardinelli also says the Sean Penn scenes are underdeveloped. And he's not alone in saying this. And he's right. But, this movie is about reflection. It doesn't want to look at the present. It wants to look at why the present is.
The power of The Tree of Life is that it has the power to make us examine the roots and branches of our own histories.
Did I Like It:
Yes. It was an experience. Everything interested me. I wanted to know what was going on. But I was okay just watching what was...happening. And it was so beautiful. But I had hated the first 15 minutes of the movie. I didn't begin to enjoy myself until the creation segment. When the film ended, I laughed, because I didn't know what else to do. It was a laugh of wonder but also confusion. One girl in the theater was crying loudly. But she was also laughing. So I couldn't tell if she was moved or found the movie so ridiculous she was beside herself. Other people were definitely laughing out of derision. About two hours after I left the theater, I had digested enough to appreciate the movie. A day later, I think it's incredible.
I loved Chastain. And Pitt. I don't know if I'd say Sean Penn made a difference? He stumbled well?
There are random voiceovers throughout the film. All are very confessional. Most are sad and questioning. I'm fine with the idea. But many of the lines struck me as cliche. At one point, someone, maybe Chastain, said a word or two, then ended with a pleading, "why?" You could argue that the characters might ask cliche questions like that because, back in the 50's, were those things cliche? Whatever. I don't care. They're cliche, to me, now.
-awesome direction and cinematography
-blowing your mind
-inducing existential drama in your own life
-a cinematic experience
-discovering Jessica Chastain
-non-linear story always confuses people
-doesn't tell you what you're watching or how to watch you, you have to figure it out
-some cliche lines in voice-over
% Character / % Actor's personality or previous roles
Malick: Badlands, Days of Heaven; The Thin Red Line; The New World
Pitt: Fight Club; Seven; Snatch; Ocean's Eleven; Troy; Mr. & Mrs. Smith; The Assassination of the Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; Burn After Reading; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Inglourious Basterds
Penn: Mystic River; Fast Times at Ridgemont High; The Thin Red Line; Milk;