I saw Terence Malick's new film "The Tree of Life" last night - it's playing exclusively in New York and L.A. here in the States, but is supposed to be expanding soon. I may use some spoilers in this review in case anyone would like to stay completely uninformed ahead of seeing it, although honestly, I think I could tell you every single thing that happens onscreen and not have spoiled anything. I've been mixed on Malick's previous films - I'm not sure that he's as brilliant as some make him out to be, but there is an undeniable about of raw talent there. If I had to try to rank him, I'd probably be forced to concede that he really couldn't make any list I'd come up with for the simple reason that he hasn't put out enough work. (Five films in 40 years makes Kubrick seem fast.) I feel like he'd be a better filmmaker if he had taken more opportunities to practice his craft, something that one can only do while actually making movies. I just wanted to throw that out there in a full disclosure sense. In other words, this probably wouldn't have been a movie I'd normally rush out to see; and I might not have, were it not for a chance viewing of the trailer. The trailer was filled with gorgeous imagery and I was curious. I'm still not sure I could tell you what the film is about: a religious allegory on the history of creation and man's place in it all? In some ways, it did seem to be like "2001: A Space Odyssey" in reverse - some of the shots are stolen right out of that film, and Douglas Trumbull came out of semi-retirement to contribute to some of the design of the effects here. It's a sort of tone poem, ostensibly set in the 1950s in a small Texas suburb, seen through the eyes of a young boy - that portion of the story takes up the majority of the film, and Malick interweaves all sorts of imagery throughout to connect the very specific experiences of one individual with the larger pattern of all existence. If that sounds like a vague or contradictory description, that same definition could be applied to the film itself. Using very little dialogue and the sparest of narratives, Malick takes us back in time to the 1950s, to a scenario presumably not too different from his own upbringing. Though I wasn't around in the 50s, I feel that if I had been (or anyone who has), the look of the film would bring back very specific memories of that time - the film captures the look and the feel of that period, not just in the look of the main characters or actors but in the entire surrounding environment; everything from the look of the children's clothes to how the father and mother (who are never given first names, as far as I can remember) speak to the attitudes they have in how they parent their children, all of it seems from a time that's passed. And yet, because those moments are so specific, there's a certain universality in how it feels, regardless of what time its set in. With that sense of universality, Malick makes all sorts of wild cuts and observations, at one point showing us the "tough love" approach to parenting Brad Pitt's "Father" character takes on and comparing it to how a parent dinosaur would have reared its young. (It actually plays out a little less outrageously than it sounds here.) Some of the overall dread that always seems to lie beneath the surface in the 50s, through the threat of the Cold War and possible worldwide extermination, carries into the film and that, in a way, is contrasted to how dinosaurs became extinct, how the world was once one way and then ceased to be, and began anew as something else, and how those things might not be as disconnected as they seem. The birth of the cosmos is interspersed with the birth of Jack, the child who is the central protagonist of the film. I don't know whether I'm recommending the film or saying to stay away; it's definitely a film that will not work for everyone. At two hours and fifteen minutes, to me it felt to mostly fly by, but other people may feel it being the equivalent of watching paint dry. Those waiting for a conventional story to be revealed will be disappointed, as none really does. Instead, the film presents us with sketches of a life, sometimes the broad strokes that make up the larger whole, sometimes very specific little etchings that slow time down to a specific moment, maybe even a moment within that moment. The editing style at times is slow and at times fast, seeming more like art-house music video than MTV-style film. At its heart, the film presents us with a boy with two loving parents who express that love in two completely different ways; the Father, difficult, hard, strict, but never a doubt that he loves his child, and the Mother, warm, compassionate, understanding, sympathetic, protecting. A bit of narration by the child at one point mentions that both are within him, always. The way the film is intercut suggests a questioning of which vision of God is correct, if only one is: that of an angry, Old Testament god or a more benevolent New Testament god. As each parent represents one extreme, we can feel that neither of their lives are as full or complete as they would have liked; perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle, that one needs both of those qualities to be whole. There's some of the film that didn't work for me, or that seemed out of place. Sean Penn briefly graces the screen as the grown-up version of Jack in our present time, and his presence there seems superfluous; he can't have been onscreen for more than five minutes or had more than a paragraph's worth of dialogue, and while I think I understand the framing device Malick was reaching for, I'm not sure that it was either necessary or entirely successful. The film's speculation on the beginnings of the world and life are far more absorbing than it's speculation on what comes after life - admittedly, my feeling on this may be colored by the fact that while scientists and historians can, to a certain degree, tell us what came before, no one can tell us what, if anything, comes after with definitive certainty. Thus, the connections I felt worked at the beginning of the film didn't hold the same power at the end of the film; but I could easily see someone feeling the exact opposite of how I did there. (Perhaps its just because the film wishes to present some kind of resolution to a scenario that seems impossible to be resolved or at least impossible to know of the resolution.) In comparison to some of those ending notes that didn't ring true to me, the juxtaposition of the beginning of the universe as well as prehistoric life on Earth worked far better than I would have imagined had someone described the film to me ahead of time. Technically speaking, the film is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. The film was shot primarily using spherical lenses and 35mm film, and the entire film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. However, different parts of the film, while keeping the same ratio, transitioned to other types of film, everything from old-fashioned 70mm to IMAX and even to high-resolution digital. Though the version of the film I saw was digitally projected, each of these different filming formats had a unique look that carried over to the final product. While the film is only being exhibited in tradition 35mm and digital projection (and not 70mm or IMAX), the different textures and properties of those aspects is retained in the finished film. (One unfortunate shortcoming of the film was that the CGI used to create the dinosaurs had that sort of "weightless" or "not really there" look that CGI sometimes has; when they were still, the illusion was completely believable, but in motion, they never seemed as real as they needed to be. This probably takes up five minutes of screen time at most, so is not a major drawback; but being that it was such a short length of time chronologically but so important thematically, I wish a better job could have been done on those effects.) All in all, while not entirely successful, The Tree Of Life was a unique experiment in filmmaking, and for the adventurous filmgoer, is well worth seeking out - particularly on the big screen, if that option is available to you. (Though I'm sure the eventual Blu-ray will look fantastic, this film did benefit being seen on a larger canvas than most of us have at home.) While at times I found the film to be frustrating and even unsatisfying, I kept thinking back to something I've often said: that I would much rather see a film reach for greatness and fail than to watch a film that aspired to mediocrity achieve it. While this may not have been a truly great film, it was a truly great filmgoing experience.