Joseph Campbell once said that people aren’t so much interested in the meaning of life as they are in having an experience of life. Terrence Malik’s latest movie, The Tree of Life, seeks to uncover that experience in us. It is an exercise in being alive in the moment. I say “exercise” because it is two hours and eighteen minutes long. You really have to want to be there. But if you are in a meditative mood and you trust Malick’s ability to show you what you’re missing whilst you’re dreaming you’re awake, this is the movie for you.
The setting for this movie is a little difficult to describe. You might say that it takes place somewhere in small-town America in the 1950s, or you could say it spans the entire lifespan of our solar system. Either explanation would be correct, but only partially. More accurately, it is a delving into the soul, mostly that of the main character, a boy/middle-aged man struggling to understand his relationship with his father and mother and, ultimately, with God. Told through symbols and metaphor, this soulscape is the main backdrop of the story. Industrial settings are cold and vacuous, bereft of meaning, surrounded by opulence and yet utterly impoverished. Early childhood memories are shrouded in mist and fraught with contradiction and ambiguity. The father’s earthly dream of success becomes the nightmare for those who have to share the same house with it. Prehistoric battles for survival presage sibling rivalry—who will be loved, and who will not? Cosmic beginnings rumble with deafening silence, echoing in our deepest chambers the litany of fire that can either transform or obliterate.
Because of these monumental images, The Tree of Life is one of those movies best seen on the big screen. It is artistically stunning—the best inspirations from Hubble laid out in National Geographic-style glossy detail. Interspersed throughout are visions of the dawn of creation, rendered with rich color and vivid imagination. The world feels stripped of its future—you see it without a sense of time or direction but rather like a dream drifting in its own tempo. Suns are born from gas clouds, the Earth boils with fire, slowly cooling and setting the stage for the first squigglings of life. Jellyfish billow up from the depths towards the light. A plesiosaur lies on the beach contemplating the wound that life is, while a school of hammerhead sharks swirl, searching for its bloody trail—life’s raw energy fiercely ignorant of all but its own exigent purposes.
In all of this, the arrogance of a modern perspective is swept aside, subdued by the grandeur and sheer presence of a world so remote that our own time, with all of its complexity and self-importance, ceases to exist, even as a possibility. Later, when we enter the family life of the main characters, this same mood of timelessness overshadows everything. Past is present; present is past. Even the future, as revealed in the end, shows itself as the underlying reality of all that is or ever was.
When we, like the characters in The Tree of Life, have to endure the travails of human existence, we look towards the heavens and ask, “Why? Why me, why here, why now?” We look at the frailty of our skin and wonder why we are made to bruise so easily, our eyes and why they must see brutality, our ears and why they are pierced by lies and the screams of the dying. Why have the ability to feel with our hearts in a world where only the callous seem to get by? Why soft feet when life is sharp and unyielding? Are we a mistake? “Who are we to you? Answer me.”—our prayer spoken for us by one of the characters. And as to Job, God seems to reply, “Who are you to ask such a question? This is big—you have no idea.”
This movie is a slice of life that cuts to the core—profoundly spiritual and moving, a prayer, at once drenched in sorrow and lifted to the highest ecstasy. Of our childhood, we remember that which touches us most deeply. We remember what we have witnessed with the eyes of our soul, those events that shape us, that define us to ourselves, that tell us who we are. There is never a moment when our soul is not aware of the planet we live on, its place in the cosmos, the immensity of the solar wind constantly pouring down upon us the fiery graces that wear away the illusion of a separate life. We know that we are known, but we are mystified by the meaning of it all. Where are we going, what is our purpose here, why do we feel so alone? These are the questions that propel us forward into the mystery of life. And in the end, it is our connection with each other that gives us the answers. We are here together, and by accepting each other and ourselves with grace and humility, we will find our way.