Christmas came early for many of us last Wednesday, when Fox Searchlight released the first trailer for Terrence Malick’s highly secretive, incredibly anticipated fifth film, The Tree of Life. If you haven’t watched it yet, stop everything, turn up the sound and immerse yourself in this:
One suspects that Mr. Malick, perfectionist auteur that he is, labored many weeks in the editing room on the trailer alone. In addition to being a truly effective trailer (in that it stokes one’s curiosity and kicks the online chatter into overdrive), it is also vintage Malick: beautifully photographed with gorgeous, Germanic music (in this case Smetana’s “The Moldau”), juxtaposing the domestic everyday with the universe’s grandeur in a way that highlights the glorious majesty of both.
In his description of the film, the reclusive Malick wrote that the film “ends in hope, acknowledging the beauty and joy in all things, in the everyday and above all in the family—our first school—the only place that most of us learn the truth about the world and ourselves, or discover life’s single most important lesson, of unselfish love.”
Certainly the film looks to follow in Malick’s singular and unconventional cinematic style, with ponderous, fragmentary voiceover and a feast of nature photography strung together in a structure more akin to a Hölderlin poem than a Hollywood film. Like his other films, Tree of Life will doubtless find Malick exploring the Heideggerian notions of being he’s been struck by ever since studying them as a philosophy professor at MIT in the 60s. In his films Malick certainly seems to share Heidegger’s notion that the world reveals itself to us through our moods and emotion, not cognition and rationalism; that truth and beauty exist most fully in the unexplained and momentary experience of encounter, in the visceral primacy and invasive “thereness” of nature, whether in close-ups of dying animals (Badlands), glistening vistas of blowing wheat fields (Days of Heaven), or shimmering sunlit rivers in a dark, unexplored land (The New World).
The consistency with which Malick’s characters and images ponder humanity through the lens of the infinite and the divine (through regular monologues about God, camera glimpses upward toward the sky/light, etc.) definitely seems to reflect Heidegger’s concept of man’s terrestrial “dwelling,” situated between earth and heaven, aware of mortality but also infinity. “Man, as man,” Heidegger wrote, “has always measured himself with and against something heavenly.”
Here are some other fun tidbits/rumors about the film to further stoke your curiosity/excitement:
- The film tells the story of Jack from youth (Hunter McCraken) to middle age (Sean Penn) and his difficulty reconciling “the way of nature” of his survival-of-the-fittest father (Brad Pitt) and “the way of grace” of compassionate mother (Jessica Chastain).
- In a 2008 interview about his 40 year working relationship with Malick, production designer Jack Fisk said the following: “It’s such an important film to Terry and I think this is the film he’s most wanted to make. His approach to filmmaking just keeps evolving. We made this film with hardly any lighting. People were working without scripts. He would dole them out and take them back. It was Terry at his most excited. He seemed stronger and more inventive than any time in the last forty years… I saw some dailies and when I see this footage it looked like you’d found some film left over from the 50s. It was just magical… It’s not structured like a regular film. I think it could change some parts of cinema. I’m just so excited about it. I told Terry, “your going to make it hard for me to work on another film after this. Because they look like films, and this… is different.”
- There are unconfirmed rumors that an IMAX film called Voyage of Time, reportedly a companion piece to The Tree of Life and narrated by Brad Pitt, will be released to coincide with Life. The IMAX film reportedly covers “the birth and death of the universe.”
- There will be dinosaurs. Mike Fink, who is doing effects work on the film, reported this to Empire magazine: “We’re animating dinosaurs, but it’s not Jurassic Park. The attempt is to treat it as if somehow a camera wound up in the middle of these periods when dinosaurs roamed the earth and creatures first started to emerge from the sea onto the land. The first mammals appearing. We’re doing a number of creatures all seriously scientifically based… I think when it’s finished it’ll be something that’s referred to for years.”
- Douglas Trumbull, the visual f/x pioneer who collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001 and Steven Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was reportedly brought in to help with visual effects.
- In one version of the screenplay for Life, the story opened with “a sleeping god, underwater, dreaming of the origins of the universe, starting with the big bang and moving forward, as fluorescent fish swam into the deity’s nostrils and out again.” Malick supposedly wanted to create something that has never been seen before, and dispatched cameramen all over the world. They shot micro jellyfish on the Great Barrier Reef volcanic explosions on Mount Edna, and ice shelves breaking off in Antarctica. Special effects consultant Richard Taylor describes sections of the script as “pages of poetry, with no dialogue, glorious visual descriptions.”