The Tree of Life (2011)

It's been a while since I last came out of the cinema on a high. You know that feeling: buzzing with excitement, genuinely thrilled with the experience that a film has given you – one that seems to speak to you personally. It rarely happens, but it did for me coming out of The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's latest. 

It took me a little by surprise. Going in, I was hopeful I would like it. Terrence Malick is not a filmmaker I have especially loved in the past, though I did enjoy his last film, The New World. What intrigued me most reading about it in advance was Malick's intention to explore the origins of the universe, and the involvement of Douglas Trumbull in the special effects sequences (striking a chord with my genuine love of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). Here perhaps was a film that could genuinely lay claim to joining the ranks of the other great science-fiction films Trumbull had contributed to, like Close Encounters, Blade Runner, Silent Running, and of course 2001.

The Tree of Life ultimately isn't one of those films; it's so much more. Crammed with thoughts and ideas about the nature of existence and the "meaning" of life (and indeed whether there is any), Malick's visual poem is a wonder to behold. Beautiful to both look at and listen to, it's a genuine work of art, whether earthbound with Brad Pitt's family in 1950s Texas or leaping back to witness the origins of life, the universe and everything. The space sequences are quite simply breathtaking. But no less powerful are the emotions running through Pitt's family following the death of a child, and the struggle for understanding and resolution.

That's not to say it's flawless: it certainly drags a little in places, particularly towards the end (though I disagree with the common view that the dinosaur sequence is a mis-step; on the contrary, it is a necessary counterpoint to the view that humanity is the beginning and end of all life). But it's easy to forgive the flaws when the ambition and success of the whole is so dazzling. Maybe it's just taken me a while to tune in to his sensibilities, but the genius of Malick certainly revealed itself to me this time.

Published by Gavin Midgley

Freelance film journalist, blogger and geek.