There are many questions that this movie brings up in people. However, there is only one question that is most discussed, and I hope to answer that question in this review. But in order to do that, I need to figure out the essence of the movie itself. There are three primary types of stories: Plot-driven, Character-driven, and Theme-driven. So to really get into this film and its purpose in the grand scheme of things (i.e. its ultimate purpose), we need to figure out exactly, well… what it is. Grant me your time as I delve into this film not with the eye of a film critic or reviewer, but that of a storyteller.
First, let us look at it as a potential plot-driven tale. There are 5 primary parts of plot, typically shown on your average plot diagram: Introduction/Exposition, Rising Action/Complication, Climax, Falling Action, and Conclusion/Denouement. Let’s begin, as they say, at the beginning.
Introduction/Exposition. As the film begins, we have a quote from the book of Job (whoo!). Then we’re given an event that does not actually occur at the start of the story. For the first 30 or so minutes, we see the death of a child and how that affects this family. But the point of an introduction is to give you information that sets up the plot as a whole. As this technically just occurs later and doesn’t drive the story as a whole, perhaps it is just a long setup sequence and what follows is the true introduction. Let’s take it back a bit to the beginning of the actual story. So next we get… the Dawn of Time. OK, a little too far back to the beginning. Fine, we’ll roll with it for the next 20 minutes and just say there really is no exposition or setup of a plot. That should bring us straight to…
Rising Action/Complication. The best way to pinpoint what all falls into your Rising Action is to pinpoint your climax. Then you know that everything between the Introduction and the Climax is, thus, your Rising Action. So, quickly…
Climax. Um… I suppose it could be the death of the child… which takes place in the first 30 minutes but is only shown for about 5 seconds when it actually gets to that part of the story again. OK, so the climax is misplaced. Maybe it’s more about the journey than the destination. We’ll go back…
Rising Action/Complication. So the bulk of the story is about this Texan family with a disciplinarian father and more nurturing mother. Stuff happens… like opening and closing doors and playing the piano and tying frogs to rockets and eating dinner and… stuff that really isn’t actually important on a surface level. Maybe the ending will help.
Falling Action. The world ends when the sun goes supernova. Um… a bit too far to the end, isn’t it? Let’s take it back a bit.
Conclusion. Sean Penn has a vision of Heaven with his family and everybody who has died. Then he exits a building.
OK, so I think it’s safe to assume that this is not a plot-driven story. It has no real setup (at least not for roughly an hour), the climax is at the beginning, the rising action is rather moot when looking at it as a story, and the conclusion doesn’t necessarily… conclude much. So if it isn’t a plot-driven story, perhaps it could be a character-driven tale. Sure. There are a couple of good primary characters here that can be studied.
We’re given the basic situation that Brad Pitt as the disciplinarian father loses his temper with his family, despite clearly loving them and just wanting the best for them. Juxtaposed to him is Jessica Chastain as the nurturing wife. And then all the kids, mainly Jack.
To have a solid character, the character must have an arch and be considered “Round” or “Dynamic.” It’s not particularly good to have a character-driven story and give us nothing but “Flat” or “Static” characters. So how do characters become Dynamic? They must face conflicts and have a substantial change happen to them. Let us take a look at our three primary characters: Mr. O’Brien, Mrs. O’Brien, and Jack O’Brien.
Mr. O’Brien is a man who dearly loves his family and wants what is best for them. But in order for them to be this way, he makes sure they follow a rigid set of rules. He demands respect and demands that everyone act a certain way. If they don’t follow this path, he becomes angry. And albeit becoming angry, he never loses his love for his family and never becomes a real monster. Even while penalizing his children, he shows understanding for their hardships. After the death of one of his sons, he questions his past actions. But does he change? Well, he reconciles with Jack at that point in time, but not according to present-day Jack (Sean Penn), who was apparently mad at his father for continuing to be a jerk at times. So while he might be interesting to watch, he never grows or changes his strict ways.
Mrs. O’Brien is a nurturing mother who loves her family, but is a bit trapped with an overbearing husband. After her child dies, she grieves and continues to love her family. Rather static.
Jack is the most conflicted, as he loves and hates both of his parents for opposing reasons. He feels his father is too strict, but his mother isn’t strict enough. He hates when his father is there, but eventually hates when he’s gone and he’s stuck with his mother. He turns to rebellion, but questions his own actions. So, basically, he’s in an on-again-off-again love/hatred cycle with his parents, particularly his father. He does inevitably reconcile with him… though as an adult hates him again… only to forgive him again at the very end. So it appears he does not really change, either.
There are a dozen conflicts in this film, all a mixture of the Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Self, and any other Man vs. you can think of. Perhaps too many conflicts that aren’t at all necessary, especially since none of them really bring change in any of the characters. But then again, perhaps it’s not a character-driven story. Perhaps the characters stay static in a story that doesn’t flow because it’s all about the themes.
However, a theme-driven story is hard to pull off, especially in film, which is a very visual, flowing medium. You know right from the beginning that we’re looking at a story that will explore the ideas of nature (or evolution, the strongest will survive) vs. the grace of God. And in this case, you know it’s more than a story about a father and son drama. Malick makes sure to make you feel that in every shot. He wants it to be more, to be grander, to where the familial issues are just a surface ploy to have us perceive the film’s themes. It’s focused and simultaneously unfocused. And I say it’s unfocused because of one simple fact: The film tries to do too much. When your film is clearly not plot- or character-driven and is solely riding on the theme train, you better have one or two very strong themes and focus on them. However, in this case, there are too many themes the film tries to explore in a near non-existent story–a collection of events that don’t matter for any other purpose than to showcase a theme. It gives us a dull trip that you can hardly explore even on a psychological or sociological level.
And I didn’t even get into the whole “tree of life” bit itself, taking the name from multiple mythologies (including Norse Mythology with Yggdrasil).
Regardless, all of this is rather useless to discuss, because–as I stated at the beginning of this “review”–there is one primary question most audiences have been asking of this film in almost every review or discussion I’ve seen on the matter. And I’m here to answer that question now. Yes, I really liked the creation and dinosaur bits and thought they were the best part of the movie.
So with all of that being said, I’m sure I just wasted the time you willingly gave me for an overly long experience that allows you no answers (while simultaneously giving you… something) and over-complicating the matter by adding in a bunch of the unnecessary to the point nobody really knows exactly what the fuck the whole point was. So for your audible pleasure, I’m leaving you with a song that I believe fits this film perfectly… thematically, verbally, and in structure and point. Click here!
(P.S. Obligatory Harry Potter comment based on the fact Fiona Shaw played the kids’ grandmother and Deathly Hallows Part 1 and 2 composer Alexandre Desplat also did the music for this film.)