Film review – The Tree of Life (2011)

30 June 2011
The Tree of Life: Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)

Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life is a cinematic poem of extraordinary scope and ambition. Terrence Malick has created a film with a quality that is rarely seen in modern cinema. Similarly to A Serious Man, The Tree of Life examines the lives of one family to explore the core question from The Book of Job of why is it that good people suffer. How can anybody believe in God in a universe that feels so godless? In the prologue to the film Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), the mother of the family, narrates, ‘There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.’ Shortly after receiving the news of the death of her middle child the film switches to the perspective of her eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) as an adult. It’s the anniversary of his brother’s death and by remembering his childhood he attempts to reconcile his conflict with the way of nature and the way of grace. The memories that then unfold on the screen not only position this conflict within the dynamic between his mother and his father (Brad Pitt), but also within the collective memory of all of creation from the Big Bang onwards.

To a degree Malick picks up where Stanley Kubrick left off with his epic exploration of humanity’s place in the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A visual link between both films is established by the distinctive imagery by special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull so that the creation of the universe sequence towards the start of The Tree of Life is something of an echo of the Star Gate sequence at the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thematically Malick is possibly even bolder than Kubrick by channelling the immense creation themes through the experiences of a single family living in suburbia in 1950s Waco, Texas. More specifically, through Jack’s childhood memories so that like Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the recollections are segmented and combined with small non-naturalistic moments to reflect what impressions remained with Jack into his adult life. Memories of sibling rivalry, emerging sexuality and domestic conflict are mixed in with images such as his mother floating above the ground as she describes her joy of flying in a plane. Malick’s real stroke of genius is conveying the impression of an individual childhood as being as significant – and as filled with wonder, beauty and danger – as the creation of the universe and life on Earth.

The Tree of Life: Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)

Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life suggests a continual battle between nature, as a sort of Darwinist survival of the fittest, and grace, as a spiritual belief that kindness and love exists beyond the survival mechanism. Jack’s mother is clearly on the side of grace with a religious faith that sees her extending compassion wherever she can. Filled with professional disappointments and resentments, Jack’s father supports the ‘natural’ idea of an indifferent universe. Despite his love for his sons he increasingly becomes emotionally abusive by projecting his frustrations onto his family. The conflict is one Jack as an adult is still struggling with and it is a conflict Malick suggests predates humanity. In an extraordinary scene during the creation of the world sequence, a predatory dinosaur moves in to kill a weaker dinosaur and then reconsiders, to instead respond in a way that hints at a sort of primordial kindness. Does this early moment suggest that there is actually no battle between grace and nature at all since grace always existed within nature?

The possibility of the existence of something greater than the physical world is strongly explored in The Tree of Life. Malick is deliberately ambiguous in this regard, which is appropriate given just how far he delves into unknown terrain. However, we do get a glimpse of something that exists both beyond time and space, but also within humanity’s collective conscious. This may be what Mrs O’Brien interprets as heaven, but it seems closer aligned to the eighteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical notion of the sublime. It also evokes the belief from many early cultures that there is a place outside of the physical world where all spirits reside waiting to be born again (as expressed, for example, in the Indigenous Australian film Ten Canoes) although this is articulated in The Tree of Life as a place where memories of the living are also present.

The Tree of Life: Jack (Sean Penn)

Jack (Sean Penn)

However, The Tree of Life is not simply a conceptually or philosophically complex exercise, but a film of stunning beauty that seductively immerses the viewer. The camera is constantly moving, the sound is intricately designed so that the dialogue and voiceovers have a musical quality, and every shot is composed with Malick’s trademark perfection. There is a constant sense of momentum in The Tree of Life and the film even seems to speed by quicker on subsequent viewings. It is a film that demands to be seen multiple times to truly appreciate its complexity and artistry, but even a single screening is enough to make jaded viewers sit up, startled by the sensation of experiencing such cinematic lyricism.

Malick has clearly shot hours upon hours of footage of the interaction between the actors playing the O’Brien family members and then cut down that footage to create an impressionist montage of their lives. The strongly naturalistic performances by the actors ensure that the film does remain grounded amid the overwhelming use of film style. Penn delivers the muted anguish felt by adult Jack in small gestures and glances. Pitt’s performance is possibly his best to date as a fearful man who is also deeply vulnerable. Newcomer Hunter McCracken as young Jack along with Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan as his two brothers come across like seasoned professionals. However, this film really belongs to Chastain who is an absolute revelation as the silent, strong and unconditionally loving mother of the family.

Terrence Malick has never made a film anything short of extraordinary, but he has surpassed himself with The Tree of Life and produced a masterpiece that will surely only continue to grow in stature and significance over time.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Free Will, Technology and Violence in a Futuristic Vision of Humanity – 2001: A Space Odyssey

3 June 2011

2001: A Space OdysseyStanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the greatest films of all time and it is the director’s most profound and confounding exploration of humanity’s relationship to technology, violence, sexuality and social structures. Kubrick’s philosophical inquiries about the nature of humanity are explored to various degrees throughout all his films but in 2001: A Space Odyssey he explored his preoccupations most substantially by examining the place that humans occupy in the universe, asking some extremely weighty questions about the way humanity has evolved and suggesting what the next stage of our evolution will be like.

Although loosely based on the short stories ‘The Sentinel’ and ‘Encounter in the Dawn’ by the acclaimed science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who would simultaneously write the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey while Kubrick wrote the film’s screenplay, the film transcends its literary origins. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a work of cinematic poetry and its combination of philosophical musings with its special effects, sound design, production design, cinematography and editing make it just as visually impressive and thematically fascinating now as it was when originally released in 1968. It is a film that has inspired countless science-fiction films since, including Duncan Jones’s acclaimed feature film début Moon (2009), which is a direct homage.

While Clarke’s excellent novel is often used to unravel many of the narrative intricacies that are not immediately apparent in Kubrick’s film, it should largely be put aside for the purpose of conducting any serious analysis of the film.  Clarke’s novel is excellent science-fiction literature, but Kubrick’s film uses the visual and audible powers of cinema to their full potential to create a work of art that produces a sensory effect on the viewer that the written word cannot replicate. The majority of the meaning to explore in 2001: A Space Odyssey is in its visuals, not in its dialogue or characterisation.

2001: A Space OdysseyMost of Kubrick’s films contain a sense of despair over the way humans are capable of treating each other. Institutionalised violence and different types of unnatural conformity feature throughout Kubrick’s films as dehumanising and soul-destroying forces. In Paths of Glory (1975) three innocent French soldiers are executed for cowardice during World War I in order to deflect responsibility of a failed attack away from the orders of an incompetent upper command. The horror film The Shining (1980) places its supernatural elements into the background and functions as a parable for domestic violence when the father of a family looking after a hotel violently takes out his frustrations on his wife and son. The American soldiers in Full Metal Jacket (1987) are first stripped of their identities and transformed into killing machines during their training to then be sent to Vietnam where they symbolically align themselves with cowboys and joke, ‘the gooks can play the Indians’.

Kubrick does seem to believe that violence is innate to humanity and the role of civilisation is to create structures for suppressing that violence without going too far to the other extreme where the social structures are themselves violent or overly restrictive in nature. The exploration of violence within humanity can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey and yet it is arguably the only film Kubrick made that could be interpreted to offer some hope for humanity to transcend its inherently destructive ways. However, before suggesting that 2001: A Space Odyssey can be therefore regarded as an optimistic film it should be noted that this hope comes in the unlikely guise of alien interference and the cold and cynical guise of sterile technology.

2001: A Space Odyssey begins with the birth of technology during the section titled ‘The Dawn of Man’. The ape-like primates who will later evolve into modern humans are depicted as on the brink of dying out. They are herbivores with not enough to eat, they are vulnerable to predators, they squabble over a small pool of water with a rival tribe and they are terrified of the dark. After encountering the alien black monolith one of the apes simultaneously learns to use a bone to hunt with as well as use it to kill with. Technology is used to kill for food and to kill for territory. Tools and weapons are thus depicted as being linked together throughout humanity’s evolution with one group having to kill another in order to wield power for their tribe to survive.

2001: A Space OdysseyIn one of the greatest graphic match edits ever depicted in cinema, Kubrick cuts from the bone being triumphantly thrown into the air to a satellite in orbit three million years later. This dramatic cut links the two objects as tools of humanity but also draws attention to the vast differences between them. One is a crude and Earth-bound tool/weapon with a simple function while the other is a sophisticated and complex object that has left the planet to now serve humanity in space.

Kubrick seems to have extremely mixed feelings about technology as it is frequently depicted as a threat to humanity (for example the doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964) and yet he also views it as something beautiful. The first sequence set in outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey is an extended, dialogue and plot-less sequence where Kubrick simply allows technology to dance. At first glance this sequence depicting the various satellites and spaceships, set to Johann Strauss’s ‘The Blue Danube’, may seem long and unnecessary but it is a crucial scene to understanding Kubrick’s vision of the future. The use of music and movement is designed to give the impression of the machines waltzing, which is the ultimate expression of the state of grace that humanity-built technology has now achieved. The days of bashing each other over the heads with bones is long gone as now humanity is capable of creating technology that can reach the stars and operate with the finesse of lovers dancing.

Not only is the use of Strauss’s waltz music romantically evocative but there is also a sexual symbolism in moments such as the space-plane docking into the wheel-shaped shape station (the wheel-shape also commenting on how far technology has progressed). Kubrick had previously presented machines in a sexual way in Dr. Strangelove when during the opening credits the image of a B-52 being connected midair to a fuelling plane is underscored by a lush orchestration version of ‘Try a Little Tenderness’. This sequence in Dr. Strangelove and the films overall sexual wordplays and innuendo is deliberately comical and suggests an absurd sexualization of objects of war. Kubrick would again do this in Full Metal Jacket when the army recruits are encouraged to sexualise their rifles.  However, in 2001 the effect is different as the sexualization of the machines is far les brutal, comical or overtly suggestive. Instead there is something almost chaste and sterile about the sequence.

2001: A Space OdysseyThe sense of sterility is further reflected by the extremely clean and corporate look given to the space station that Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) disembarks onto. The modernist furniture, bright white lights and smooth surfaces all reflect a bland uniformity that is not dissimilar to the corporate branded world that is satirised in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (2009). The conversation between Heywood and the Russian scientists indicates that in this version of the future the Cold War persists, or there are at least still tensions between the USA and Russia, however, discourse is polite and there is no hint of violence. Is this the price of humanity has paid for evolving beyond the desire to kill – complete blandness?

The idea of technology erasing violence but also erasing the desires and freewill that define what makes us human is also explored by Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange (1971). As part of a zero tolerance approach to crime the film’s protagonist, the charismatic yet sociopathic teenager Alex DeLarge, is subjected to a controversial behavioural-correction treatment that makes him experience nausea whenever he starts to have any violent or sexual feelings. A Clockwork Orange suggests that stifling such urges is a bad thing because it suppresses the will and therefore the identity of the subject. What good is it for somebody to do good when they have no choice otherwise? In Alex’s case he also becomes sickened by the sound of Ludwig van Beethoven’s music as a side effect of his treatment. While Alex’s violence is clearly depicted as destructive his neutering also has a morally adverse effect.

Kubrick is clearly anti-conflict and anit-violence but he is also against any system of over regulation that reduces humans to virtual automations. While the utopian technology of 2001: A Space Odyssey is something to be marvelled at it also comes with a price, which is fully explored in the ‘Jupiter Mission’ section of the film. The dehumanising effect of over-regulation is critiqued in this section by depicting the human characters Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as almost emotionless servants of Discovery One. The three other scientists onboard are kept frozen in cryogenic hibernation making them virtual machines waiting to be switched on when required by the two ‘caretakers’ Bowman and Poole. The music that Kubrick uses during these scenes evokes the lonely emptiness of space but if Bowman or Poole feel melancholia, or any other emotion, then they don’t show it. Even when Poole receives a birthday message from his parents on Earth he barely registers any emotion.

2001: A Space OdysseyThe only character on board Discovery One with any traces of humanity is the computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). Programmed by humans to conceal key truths from Bowman and Poole as well as preserving the mission at all costs, which ends up translating as resorting to murder, HAL is still the most sympathetic character on board. His flawed programming that results in violence is the result of his human developers, suggesting that humans have once again misused technology. While the deaths of the human characters are cold, mechanical and emotionless, HAL’s death is extremely moving. Pleading with Bowman to not shut him down and then spiralling into delirium, HAL’s death is given the most dramatic significance in the film.

Placing sympathy and humanity onto a machine character instead of the human characters is an effective way of establishing the dehumanising effect of the modern world. It is a technique that has since become very popular in science-fiction films making a similar comment about a society where the humans are so machine-like that the machines seem human by contrast. The replicants in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Bishop in Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Murphy once he has become the cyborg enforcer in RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) and even The Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991) all express compassion, passions and degrees of empathy that most of the human characters in the films fail to possess.

At the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey humanity has reached a point where civilisation and technology have appeared to have outgrown the primitive brutality of violence that developed when humanity first evolved due to the intervention of the monolithic aliens. However, this evolution has now brought humanity to a false-Utopian state of sterility, passivity and clinical coldness where a computer resorts to killing the humans it is supposed to work for in order to preserve its mission. Just as the early human-ape creatures at the start of the film were at the point where they could go no further by themselves, the humans in the film’s version of the year 2001 are also required to now undergo the next step in evolution.

2001: A Space OdysseyThis next evolutionary process is depicted in the concluding segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey titled ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ when the film adopts the point-of-view of Bowman to take the audience through an extraordinary psychodelic experience that is designed to represent the enormity and significance of what is happening. While the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey informs the reader that Bowman is physically transported through an alien made Star Gate, the sensation of the sequence in the film could easily be interpreted as a mental or even spiritual transcendence onto a higher plane of consciousness. Delivered into an ornate eighteenth-century room that is uncanny in its out-of-context familiarity, time appears to fold in on itself as Bowman witnesses himself in progressively older incarnations, before adopting those incarnations to eventually be reborn.

As the distinctive notes and crashing drums of Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ are heard for the final time to once again signal the next giant step for humanity, we are left with what we are to assume is what Bowman has become – an unborn child floating in space looking down on planet Earth. This dramatic final shot contains a sensation of awe and triumph and then the repeat of the  ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz over the end credits reinstates a sense of hope and beauty with this outcome.

However, what should we really deduce from this ending? Is humanity being transformed into the blank slate of an unborn star child something to hope for? Does such an ending suggest that given the way we are now there is no other hope for our species to survive? Since Kubrick is so critical of social and political structures that force humans to adopt a way living that is restrictive and contradicts freewill then what do we make of the idea that the entire human race have been manipulated by an alien intelligence since the very beginning? Is being under the control of a higher intelligence a source of comfort or the ultimate irony in Kubrick’s cinematic exploration of violence and artificial codes of behaviour throughout his career? The ultimate meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is as deliberately ambiguous as the motives and origins of the black monoliths whose gift of heightened intelligence gave humanity the tools it needed to both survive and self-destruct.

Screen Education

Originally published in issue 58 (Winter 2010) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Moon (2009)

10 October 2009

Moon_AUS_4

The best science fiction stories are grounded in actual scientific principles that are used to establish a futuristic scenario that then facilitates the exploration of deeper philosophical issues. The hard science in Moon is the idea that in the future humanity will mine the moon for its rich supply of Helium-3, in order to power the Earth with nuclear fusion. On board a moon based Helium-3 mining station is its sole occupant, mining company employee Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) with only his computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) for company. Sam is close to finishing his three-year contract with the company but the impact of the loneliness and isolation is starting to kick in. After a near fatal accident on the moon’s surface Sam is presented with an existential mystery that gives him very good reason to question his sanity.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell)

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell)

Feature film debut director Duncan Jones cites Alien, Blade Runner, Silent Running, Outland and 2001: A Space Odyssey as some of his influences. By using a combination of old-school model effects and soundstage sets with modern CGI, Jones has deliberately evoked the look of these films, especially Alien, where technology is bulky, slightly worn out and dirty. Sam’s dishevelled appearance and the film’s low budget aesthetic even resembles Dark Star to a degree while thematically Moon also strongly evokes Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. However, it really is 2001: A Space Odyssey that comes across as Jones’s main influence, especially in terms of overall production design and the computer character GERTY, which is an overt reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL. It is curious to note that 2001: A Space Odyssey is also the film that inspired Jones’s father David Bowie to musically explore similar ideas revolving around the alienation, emptiness and sadness of space.

Moon is an incredibly impressive film that assumes a degree of intelligence from its audience even if it is possibly a little too quick in revealing the explanation for what is going on. The lunar landscape looks incredible and Rockwell gives an amazing performance, sustaining the entire film as almost the only actor to appear on screen. Moon is a small film but it effectively and credibly captures the beauty, melancholy and eeriness of space while telling a surprisingly human story.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

27 December 2008

The original 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the all time great classical Hollywood films. It was the first significant Hollywood science fiction film and one of the first films to ideologically engage with the political climate at the time by tackling anti-Communist/Cold War paranoia. Despite its big budget it was a narrative driven film with more emphasis placed on dramatic action rather than spectacle and effects. The eclectic and reliable director Robert Wise, who began his career in film as the editor for Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), directed the film and the legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the music. Herrmann’s use of the theremin for the music in The Day the Earth Stood Still was hugely influential, making the theremin the standard sound for all science fiction soundtracks throughout the 1950s. The idea of remaking such a definitive and important film seems at first glance to be incredibly foolhardy, however this new 2008 film should not be automatically dismissed. It is by no means as good as the original but by taking the central premise of the original and maintaining its core ideology in order to address contemporary issues, this remake becomes a film that is worth considering.

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Book review – The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, & the Holocaust

29 March 2006

Geoffrey Cocks. The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, & the Holocaust. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2004

The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, & the Holocaust is the ambitious attempt by author Geoffrey Cocks, a Professor of History, to view the films of Stanley Kubrick as a personal discourse on the horrors of the Holocaust. Having written previously about both the Holocaust and Kubrick, Cocks has combined his two interests in The Wolf at the Door to conclude that The Shining (1980) is Kubrick’s “artistic and philosophical response to the horrors of the Second World War. (2)”

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Film review – Solaris (2002)

18 March 2003

With Solaris the diverse and talented director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Out of Sight) has commendably tackled the philosophical potential of the science fiction genre. George Clooney plays a psychiatrist who must question his understanding of reality after being sent to a space station to discover what has happened to the crew, only to find that his dead wife has inexplicably materialised from his memories of her.

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Top Ten films of all time

24 May 2002

My top ten films significantly moved me emotionally or intellectually when I first saw them. They inspired my love of film and encouraged me to explore new areas of film theory.

(in preferential order)

1.  2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
2.  Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
3.  Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
4.  Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990)
5.  Wings Of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)
6.  Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
7.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
8.  Barton Fink (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991)
9.  Burnt by the Sun (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994)
10. Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)

Just missed out: City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931), Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1993), Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999).

Originally appeared here on Senses of Cinema in 2002 

© Thomas Caldwell, 2002