The universe is full of mystery: What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? If God exists, why does He allow evil? And perhaps most perplexing of all, how did not one, but two Hollywood productions in the last five years attract major financing for projects tackling those kinds of questions without linear stories that film critics, not to mention common moviegoers, could understand?
Well, the good Lord works in mysterious ways, and in the case of writer-director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (now in theaters) and The Fountain (2006), written and directed by Darren Aronofsky with help on the story from Ari Handel, we are arguably better off for it.
Reactions are all over the lot on Malick’s latest opus, and so is the film, which examines a Texas family’s extended life and reaches for an emotional link connecting it to all of creation. Aronofsky’s metaphysical missile, on the other hand, describes a parabola between life and death, attempting to shed light on life’s essence through a sort of tag-team narrative, part of which deals with a literal search for — wait for it — the tree of life.
Both films are big, beautiful, Bible-quoting productions with A-list casts trying to piece together mosaics answering life’s Big Questions. Luckily, here at the Smack, we have a much simpler question to consider: Which if either of these films comes out on top in their battle to achieve cinematic immortality?
Moments into The Tree of Life you see this isn’t straight ahead filmmaking. It quotes God in the Book of Job, asking “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation… and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” A son has died in some unnamed war. Another son, Jack O’Brien, now grown, muses about his life and a tree growing in the plaza of a downtown skyscraper. An emotionally fraught sequence displays the creation of a universe, dinosaurs, vast seas and a town on the Texas plains. That’s where the O’Briens live under the sheltering presence of a giant tree in their yard.
Under that tree a family grows, learning some life lessons and regretting a few learned too late. A later sequence shows Jack walking a beach, reunited by memory with family — including the brother who died.
Malick’s career has traveled four decades, exulted by studios and critics, but largely below the radar of a mass audience. The five features he’s directed during that time have all been highly personal and visually stunning. This year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, The Tree of Life’s release date was postponed more than two years by studio delays and Malick’s own tweaking.
The Defending Champion
The Fountain cites a recurring theme taken from Genesis: “…Therefore the Lord God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and placed a flaming sword to protect the tree of life.” That image connects the protagonists in three separate story lines (not to mention the opposing film). In one, Hugh Jackman is Tomas, a conquistador in Mesoamerica seeking the biblical Tree of Life. His love interest is the Spanish queen, Isabel (Rachel Weisz).
In another story line, Jackman is Tommy, a neuroscientist looking to eliminate the brain tumor that will kill his wife, Izzi (Weisz). A tree is a central image there and also within a third story thread. That one features space traveler Tom conversing in the 26th Century with an apparition of Izzi from the past. This film, like The Tree of Life, endured a troubled and delayed path from idea to screen.
You can throw out any ideas about spoilers here. Any discussion about plot is largely beside the point in both films. Your personal frame of reference will weigh the events and assign meaning. You’re on your own here.
The Fountain and The Tree of Life transport you through time and space within a fractured, non-linear structure of storytelling. Fountain develops its richly visual style from special photography and match cut editing, less from computer generated effects. The result gives Jackman and Weisz a comfortable backdrop as they embody themes of life and love and death. Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Black Swan) is an artist who wrings emotion from everyday life, and The Fountain flows with it at times.
A number of well known actors were associated with The Tree of Life at one time or another: Colin Farrell, Heath Ledger, Mel Gibson. By the time production finally started, Sean Penn was Jack O’Brien and Brad Pitt played his father. They are excellent — especially Pitt as a dad who loved his family, just not very well. Jessica Chastain was convincing as Pitt’s wife. So was Hunter McCracken as the young Jack O’Brien you see during the bulk of the film. You don’t see high drama, just life as it’s lived: playing in the front yard, arguing in the kitchen, loving your family.
An emotional dimension gives Tree its distinctive visual signature. The creation sequences are nothing short of gorgeous and evoke the pulse of emerging life, though I could have done without the dinosaurs. Special mention goes to Douglas Trumball, who supervised special effects for this film, as he did for 2001: A Space Odyssey. This marks a high achievement in the film, even if it felt long and occasionally ponderous.
Given how hard it is to comprehend what life is all about on a good day, is it any wonder that a movie that tackles the Big Question will be controversial and hard to understand? When considering these two films, we have to look to other cues. Nobody will accuse either of being a first-date movie. No pratfalls, no easy laughs, no dialogue that will sound dated in 20 years.
I can’t discount any film that swings for the fence artistically, even at the risk of alienating mainstream audiences. So which film hits the long ball? The Fountain is more accessible, but its artistic reach falls incrementally short of our winner, The Tree of Life. Its sweep is broad and demands your engagement in a way I haven’t seen in many years. The judges at Cannes felt that way; I wonder how Academy voters will respond.