Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Tree of Life’: Putting Life’s Problems in Perspective

July 20, 2020 Updated: July 24, 2020

PG-13 | | Drama, Fantasy | 17 May 2011 (France)

As our cinematic director-elders move closer to the end of their lives, the big questions are starting to surface in their work. Clint Eastwood’s 2010 “Hereafter” explored the afterlife. Then came Terrence Malick in 2011 with “The Tree of Life.”

Co-produced by Brad Pitt, “The Tree of Life” was the toast of the film world at the time, having won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in France.

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Sean Penn in “The Tree of Life.” (Merie Wallace/Twentieth Century Fox)

This is not your average moviegoing experience, not really entertainment per se. It’s a grand mirror of nature and the cosmos, over the surface of which skates a tiny human story.

The film draws on many sources, resulting in a sort of mash-up of a family narrative, Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth” and “Animal Planet,” Science Channel’s “The Cosmos,” and even a tiny bit of “Jurassic Park.”

“The Tree of Life” is a symphony, a cinematic opus, a poem of images. It requires a contemplative state of mind. Moviegoers who know how to meditate might think about emptying their minds and slowing their breathing. If you need pure popcorn, watch “Thor,” which also came out in 2011—this here is popcorn and inspiration.

a woman, a boy, and a man at a picnic table in "The Tree of Life"
(L–R) Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, and Brad Pitt in “The Tree of Life.” (Merie Wallace/Twentieth Century Fox)

Speaking of which, “Thor” shares something with “The Tree of Life.” Actually, two things: Yggdrasil, the gargantuan tree of life in Norse mythology, is somewhat explained in “Thor” and is quite possibly the source of Malick’s title, although numerous religions speak of a tree of life.

The two movies also share spectacular shots of the cosmos—great rotating spiral galaxies, white dwarf stars, red giants, neutron stars, wormholes, black holes, and that stunning, widely seen “Eye of God” nebula.

"God's Eye" nebula in "Tree of Life." (Twentieth Century Fox)
The “Eye of God” nebula in “The Tree of Life.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

As for the human story, we see Sean Penn’s architect in his skyscraper office, thinking about a death in the family, flashing back to a Midwestern upbringing in the 1950s. His character, Jack, is a seeker, questioning the meaning of life. Two themes run through the movie, namely, the power of nature and the power of grace.

Volcano explosion in "The Tree of Life"
The Krakatoa eruption in “The Tree of Life.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

We are invited to entertain the idea that perhaps these two forces shape everything. In the microcosm of the family, Brad Pitt embodies the force of nature in the character of an authoritarian, bullying father. A newcomer at the time, Jessica Chastain—looking like a luminous, willowy mixture of Cate Blanchett and Bryce Dallas Howard—embodies grace.

family seated at dinner table in "The Tree of Life"
(L–R) Brad Pitt, Laramie Eppler, and Jessica Chastain in “The Tree of Life.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

The scenes of the boys growing up are fiercely nostalgic and haunting; they’re a poetic version of the life of young boys depicted in Rob Reiner’s “Stand by Me.”

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(L–R) Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, and Jimmy Donaldson in “The Tree of Life.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

Oceans, sand dunes, poetry, light patterns, human birth, birth of stars, whispered philosophies, choirs, volcanoes, clouds, waterfalls, red rocks, hot springs, jellyfish, dinosaurs, manta rays, sequoias …

desert in "The Tree of Life"
Sahara Desert landscape, in “The Tree of Life.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

“Where does the soul go after death?” … “Why does our father hurt us?” … “I didn’t notice the glory” … “Only way to be happy is to love, or your life will flash by.”

Pondering Life’s Big Questions

This ultrawide spectrum immediately and inherently generates some of the huge questions that humans tend to ask. Simultaneously, by using what seems like the widest span of macrocosmic and microcosmic images photographed to date, it allows intuitions of answers to well up in our minds by simply expanding our visual perspective.

mother's hands and baby foot in "The Tree of Life"
A mother’s hands hold baby’s feet, in “The Tree of Life.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

By juxtaposing the tiny, “mundane” human with the towering, colossal setting in which we exist, it’s almost impossible not to imagine that there must be rhyme and reason behind the sheer magnitude of this imagery.

Massive galaxies in "The Tree of Life" (Twentieth Century Fox)
Massive galaxies depicted in “The Tree of Life.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

“The Tree of Life” challenges the question of whether modern science can encompass all that. We don’t regularly look through this wide a lens. When viewing the family dramas, it brings to mind one of my favorite Eastern-philosophy phrases: “When you take a step back in a conflict, you will find the earth and seas boundless, and it will certainly be another situation.”

There should be more movies like this. It seems to me that if we don’t start filling our minds with these kinds of questions, slowing our breathing down, and taking a break from Everything, we will love less and less, and our lives will indeed flash by.

I’d recommend a double-feature night: See “Thor” first and follow it up with “The Tree of Life.” If you’re experiencing some difficulties, this prescription of Popcorn and Inspiration will help you take a step back from the current COVID conflicts and put things in perspective.

man on knees in a suit at the beach in "The Tree of Life"
Sean Penn plays a man seeking answers to the meaning of life, in “The Tree of Life.” (Twentieth Century Fox.”

‘The Tree Of Life’
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw, Michael Showers, Hunter McCracken, Tye Sheridan
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hours, 19 minutes
Release Date: May 17, 2011
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch