Revisiting that confounding cosmic ‘Creation’ sequence in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life”

By on July 11, 2015

This is going to be epic: twenty-two minutes into The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s elliptical magnum opus from 2010, the viewer is abruptly whisked back to the very beginning of time and space and, for the next seventeen minutes, we’re treated to a mind-bending metaphysically cosmic reverie — not since Stanley Kubrick’s iconic opening sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey have we seen a sequence of similar epic scope — before being returned back to a storyline taking place in “an ordinary house in central Texas, in a neighborhood at the edge of town.”

This sequence depicts with near-abstract and often abstruse images what can only be described as the Creation of our earth, with shots of galaxies and planetary movements, chemical reactions, gaseous clouds, bubbling lava, hot geysers, squiggly one-celled molecules, jellyfish, canyons, and churning oceans, before eventually giving way to what might be the only time you ever see a CG dinosaur caressing another injured beast in a display of prehistoric kindness (The Tree of Life, it should probably be pointed out, opens with a quotation from Job 38: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”).

What exactly would a sequence specifically created to depict how one went about searching for his place in the world look like? What would a sequence that serves to connect the characters to not only their own lives, and to their own existence, but to all existence, from the beginning of time to the present day, for a deep and profound cinematic equivalent to all of mankind’s lifelong search for meaning — what would that be?

Malick’s Creation sequence in Tree of Life attempts to do these things, and more, and we cannot think of another American filmmaker ambitious enough to attempt it, brave enough to dig down to the very depths of his own soul, and — even as we acknowledge that its inclusion in the film polarizes even a lot of Malick’s fanbase — we think this particular sequence was so remarkable that it deserves another look.

First, let’s go back, then, to the beginning, to Terrence Malick’s own personal book of Genesis, if you will, to set the foundation for how the seeds of The Tree of Life first sprouted in Malick’s mind, and let us also put down some of the facts of what we know about his thus-far fascinating enigmatic life, leading up to the release of the film five years ago.

Terrence Malick was born on November 30, 1943, in Ottawa, Illinois (although he once told Cahiers du Cinéma he was born in Waco, Texas), the eldest son of Emil — an Assyrian-Christian who came to America from Lebanon — a geologist who worked in the oil business, and Irene, his mother, a housewife.

Early on, he grew up with his brothers on a family farm near Chicago, but the family then moved to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, later moving to Waco, Texas, when his father took a job as an executive with Phillips Petroleum. He went to St. Stephen’s Episcopal High in Westlake, Texas, where he not only excelled in football — he was named to the state’s all-prep team as linebacker in 1959 and 1960 — but he was also named Texas’s top chemistry student as well. During summers, Malick worked as a farmhand or on the oil fields.

He moved on from Texas, however, and went to Harvard, where he studied philosophy under Stanley Cavell, a Professor Emeritus and respected film theorist who provoked Malick’s interest in German philosopher Martin Heidegger. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1965.

At age 22, he was traveling on to become a Rhodes Scholar at Magdalen College, in Oxford, England, but dropped out before getting his doctorate after having a disagreement with his thesis adviser, Gilbert Ryle; the details of this argument are largely unknown, although The Harvard Crimson claims it had something to do with “the contrasting worldviews of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein.”

While at Harvard, he also translated Heidegger’s Holzwege and even met the philosopher during a year abroad in Germany. Malick would later writer a translation of a Heidegger tome, The Essence of Reasons (originally published as Vom Wessen de Grundes, in 1929), published by Northwestern University Press in 1969.

Malick went to Bolivia in 1967 to write an article about the trial of the French communist intellectual Regis Debray, an associate of Che Guevara, the day before Guevara was captured and killed in the jungle. Malick stayed there for four months. Returning to the U.S., and for a number of years following his return, he worked as a journalist for Newsweek and Life, where he wrote about Latin America, and then he took a position at The New Yorker, where he maintained an office from 1968 to ’69, writing obituaries for Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy.

From 1970 to 1975, Malick was married to Jill Jakes, an assistant to the director Arthur Penn. They divorced in 1978. His companion afterward in the late 1970s was director and screenwriter Michie Gleason. Malick even taught philosophy, for a short time, at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), but he later told Cahiers du Cinema in 1973:

“In the fall of 1969, I realized I wasn’t a good teacher and should leave teaching, but I didn’t know what to do next. I’d always liked movies without ever being a true cinephile. When I heard the American Film Institute had just opened and was accepting applications for their masters program, I decided to apply. Today [this was in 1973] I would certainly not be accepted, but at the time it was not well known.”

Malick enrolled at the AFI Conservatory as part of its inaugural class, where one of his classmates was David Lynch. His thesis project film, Lanton Mills, was a short feature that starred Harry Dean Stanton (in the title role) and Warren Oates, as two 19th-century cowboys plotting to rob a bank in Texas, which they do in the 20th century.

The relative success of Lanton Mills led to his first screenwriting credit, Pocket Money, which was directed by Stuart Rosenberg in 1972. His screenplay was based on the novel Jim Kane (1970) by Joseph P. Brown. The movie starred Paul Newman and Lee Marvin and took place in 1970s Arizona and northern Mexico.

Malick made a lot of contacts in Los Angeles, and worked as a re-write pen-for-hire on projects that were begun by other directors — including penning a draft of Dirty Harry and the screenplay for Jack Nicholson’s somewhat forgotten directorial debut Drive, He Said. He also co-wrote a screenplay for the 1974 film, The Gravy Train (aka The Dion Brothers), with Bill Kerby; Malick used the named “David Whitney.” It was was directed by Jack Starrett and starred Stacy Keach, and Frederic Forrest.

However, after another of his screenplays was made into what Paramount Pictures felt to be an unreleasable film — the Alan Arkin-starring road movie called Deadhead Miles, directed by Vernon Zimmerman, was never theatrically released — Malick decided to focus from thereafter on directing his own screenplays.

Malick’s own feature-length debut, Badlands, from his own original screenplay, starred Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers, a twenty-five-year-old James Dean look-alike, and Sissy Spacek as Holly Sargis, his fifteen-year-old girlfriend. After murdering Holly’s father, they begin a flight across the northeastern United States, killing five others along the way. The story was based on Charles Starkweather, who had gone on killing spree in 1958 accompanied by his underage girlfriend.

It was not an easy production to begin with. Malick — with help from his brother, Chris, managed to raise $300,000 for Badlands‘s pre-production costs, with additional financing from independent producer Edward Pressman and from personal friends like former Xerox chief Max Palevsky.

According to David Handelman in his article “Absence of Malick” for California Magazine, the director shot Badlands “in Eastern Colorado between August and October of 1972,” but he reportedly gave investors no guarantee of completion or distribution, paid himself no salary and his actors and crew not much more. The costumer and mechanic both ended up acting in the film. Even Malick appears in a cameo in Badlands, only because the intended actor didn’t show up on the day the scene was shot.

Malick’s first cinematographer, Brian Probyn, wouldn’t shoot what Malick wanted, claiming the scenes wouldn’t cut together, so Malick handed over the cinematography to Probyn’s assistant, Tak Fujimoto, who also left.

Some equipment was damaged by the film’s fire sequence. When a special-effects man suffered severe burns, Malick, unable to afford a helicopter, sent him to the distant hospital by car, and many crew members quit in protest. For the last two weeks of the shoot, the entire crew consisted of the director, the director’s wife and a local high school student.  Then Malick ran out of money while editing and had to take a rewrite job to finish his movie.

When shown to the New York Film Festival selection board months later, the print broke, the sound was muddy, the picture was out of focus, and yet, despite all of the on-set mishaps and setbacks, Badlands landed the prestigious closing-night slot and drew raves. Warner’s paid $950,000 for the distribution rights.

Badlands was released to critical acclaim in 1973, after two full years of filming and editing, and Malick’s reputation for unusual subjects and visual poetry was established with this stunning debut, one of the most poetic films released in the 1970s. Indeed, some of the language in the film — like a line about Spacek’s character’s tongue touching the roof of her mouth — came directly from the poetry of Walt Whitman.

Malick’s next film, Days of Heaven, was actually an update of the love triangle between Abraham, Sarah and the Pharaoh of Egypt from the Book of Genesis (incarnated here by Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard) to a wheat farm on the Texas Panhandle in 1916.

The title comes from Psalm 89: “The Lord’s seed also will I make to endure forever and his throne as the days of heaven. If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; if they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with my rod, and their iniquity with stripes.”

The storyline languorously unfolded at its own pace, a beautifully lyrical narrative that showed farmers working against the backdrop of the growing, harvesting and reaping cycles, all of it captured with an aching, painterly beauty by the great cinematographer Nestor Almendros, along with uncredited Haskell Wexler, who made the wide-open expanse of Alberta, Canada look very much like Texas might have at the turn of the century.

The film was stunning, and although it had little dialogue it visually referenced seemingly everything, including paintings by Andrew Wyeth (particularly Christina’s World, 1948) and Edward Hopper, films by F.W. Murnau (City Girl, 1930), and Alexander Dovzhenko — it can also be seen as an homage to silent films, as Malick includes a glimpse of Chaplin’s work — not to mention the novels of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, particularly her novel My Antonia.

Days of Heaven went way over budget and beyond its scheduled shoot, due in large part to Malick’s detail-obsessed style of directing and editing. The film won Malick the best director award at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

In was in the summer of 1978, around the same point that Days of Heaven was finally being released into theaters, that Terrence Malick originally conceived of the Creation sequence to take place in a completely different film, a Paramount Studios-financed project called, simply, Q — short for Qasida (a philosophical panegyric ode in praise of an influential person, popular in Middle Eastern poetry), which was another title it was given during various stages of Malick’s writing process, as well as Creation — which he’d begun working on for his next film.

Malick’s spent so much time working on Q that the pre-production phase stretched for well over a year, and those who read the 250-page screenplay during this time recognized that it was something special.

Malick had wanted to do something similar to the way Beethoven had structured his symphonies, he would explain, at the time (back when he was still talking to the media), telling Los Angeles magazine writer Joe Gillis in 1995 that he was becoming more and more interested in telling a story in a non-narrative style, but his original idea just kept changing.

“The original concept was a multi-character drama set in the Middle East during World War I,” Gillis describes in the Los Angeles article, “with a prologue set in prehistoric times, But after dispatching an assistant for 10 weeks to scout locations, Malick chucked the Middle East section. By the end of the year, the prehistoric prologue had become the whole script.”

Malick was moving forward with developing Q quickly, it seemed. He had hired an assistant to scout potential locations, and then dispatched second unit cameramen around the globe to film naturalistic scenes that would somehow seem convincing enough (in a pre-CGI-era) to pass for prehistoric earth.

Special effects guru Richard Taylor told Gillis in that same article 1995, “Imagine this surrealistic reptilian world, there is this creature, a Minotaur, sleeping in the water, and he dreams about the evolution of the universe, seeing the earth change from a sea of magma to the earliest vegetation, to the dinosaurs, and then to man. It would be this metaphorical story that moves you through time.”

One of the more interesting aspects to this was that Malick seemed to be in no hurry to complete the project, or any project, Always the perfectionist, he had wanted to make a great film out of his Q screenplay, or would rather have produced no film at all.

The pressure of following-up two critical favorites, Badlands and Days of Heaven, with a film that had to match or surpass their poetic brilliance proved quite daunting, but Malick seems to have reacted as if he was under no particular pressure from Paramount to finish it; they seemed to understand that Malick would give them the film when it was ready, and so the process went on much longer that most studios would have allowed.  He was on a retainer from Paramount during the production process of Q, and according to someone who worked at the studio, he and Paramount’s Charles Bludhorn — the movie executive who gave him the complete freedom to work on Q without putting pressure on him to finish it on Paramount’s or anyone else’s particular time-table — had a “mutual understanding.”

So, Malick took his time developing Q, and Paramount is said to have spent over $1 million on the project, and postponed shelving it even after Malick failed to deliver a screenplay for Q after the first year. Instead, he turned it into them in 40-page poetic chunks. Playwright/actor Sam Shepard, who had co-starred in Days of Heaven, read the screenplay and said was “brilliant, but virtually unfilmmable.”

By this point, Malick may not have even needed the money either — not only was independently wealthy, as his family had some Texas oil money, but by this point he was making upwards of $100,000 per project as script doctor every time someone came to him to work on their screenplay (often without any credit).  But mostly Malick led what was by most accounts an austere life.

When Bludhorn died suddenly on February 19, 1983, there were even more setbacks, and delays, but he’d continued developing Q for awhile longer, while the new execs at Paramount waited patiently while Malick worked at his own pace.

In addition to hiring the second unit camera crew, he also hired and began working with a composer named Francesco Lupica, and they would meet for private discussions and Lupica would play for Malick the spacey score music he’d composed of sonorous chimes and drones, often escaping to Lupica’s Venice Beach studio to hear what he was working on. “Francesco, I need me some beam,” Lupica has said Malick would request of him, and Lupica thought the project was a “go,” so he continued to work on the music not even knowing that Malick had by this point pretty much disappeared.

Lupica says he did not hear from the filmmaker again until 1997, when he was sought out to contribute to Malick’s new film, The Thin Red Line, which was based on James Jones’s World War II-based novel about the U.S. Army’s November 1942 landing on Guadalcanal, relieving the U.S. Marines that had invaded in August (prior to that, Malick was attached to direct Che, starring Benicio Del Toro, but left the project in 1994 to make The New World when the budget could not be raised).

What happened to Terrence Malick during those nearly twenty years, between the late 70s and the late 90s, a hiatus that had begun while he was working on the movie that would ultimately become The Tree of Life?

Malick certainly kept busy, for awhile. With Q proving to be a much bigger project than he’d initially thought, he started working on a bio-pic screenplay about Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man, and had turned in a spec script to his producer Bobby Geisler who was an enthusiastic champion of pretty much everything Malick did — although Geisler had only a few credits of his own, a feature and a few television projects, he felt that Malick’s two films thus far were so special that he pretty much convinced Paramount to let him have as much time and freedom as he needed to work on his films — but the Merrick script fell to the wayside when they learned that David Lynch, Malick’s classmate at AFI, was also working on a film based on Merrick’s life, and his film — with the same working title — was much further along (Lynch’s film was released to theaters on October 10, 1980).

Malick and Geisler had also briefly started a different project, adapting David Rabe’s play In The Boom Boom Room, but Malick had abandoned it too, because it didn’t feel right. He also did adaptations of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Larry McMurtry’s The Desert Rose, and a screenplay called Great Balls of Fire, about Jerry Lee Lewis, and wrote a screenplay for a film called The English Speaker in 1996, which was another probably unfilmmable story based Studies on Hysteria, written by Josef Breuer (with assistance from Dr. Sigmund Freud), about Anna O., a schizophrenic Austrian-Jewish feminist whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim.

She had been a patient’s of Freud’s who spoke the English language out of the blue, after her own native tongue became corrupted. Malick’ script was based on their 1880s Vienna studies, published in 1895. It’s doubtful that Malick will ever return to this project as David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method — released on November 23, 2011 — covered similar ground with Freud and Jung’s treatment of Sabina Spielrein, a hysteric with similar ailments that the two vexed partners would try and cure.

He’d also begun developing an ambitious screenplay for Sansho the Bailiff, based no doubt on the same source as the 1954 Japanese period film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi (Malick’s script was to be directed by Andrzej Wajda) before scrapping the project altogether.

Lots of time went by. In 1985, he married a Frenchwoman, Michèle Marie Morette, whom he met in Paris in 1980. She lived in his same building in Paris and had a daughter, Alexandra (or Alex). During the rest of the 80s and early 90s, Malick also traveled the world and indulged his love of nature, exploring the ancient caves of Nepal, climbing the Alps, taking long excursions in Greece, Nova Scotia and the south of France. During his so-called “sabbatical,” his home base was an apartment in Paris and he also kept two apartments (one for living, one for writing) in a prefabricated building in Austin, Texas, where he moved his wife and their daughter (Malick is said to still live in the Austin area).

Meanwhile, the press began asking what had happened to the brilliant director of Badlands and Days of Heaven — where had he disappeared to?  “He’s the ultimate phantom,” Don Simpson, a former vice president of production at Paramount said in 1985, after Malick had only been M.I.A. for a few years. “Last I heard, he was in some garret in France with no electricity and no phone. There are so many rumors about him — it’s like Ken Kesey’s fake suicide. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were dead.”

Richard Corliss, writing for Time in anticipation of The Tree of Life’s release, summarized the period missing from Malick’s creative output as follows: “In 1978, he moved to Paris, and he did not release another film for 20 years. Legends grew around his silence: Was he living in a garage? Teaching philosophy at the Sorbonne?”

According to Variety’s Tatiana Siegel, the disappearance helped solidify Malick’s reputation: “When Malick returned to action 20 years after Days of Heaven with The Thin Red Line, his reputation had gone beyond cult to legend, doubtlessly due in no small measure to a reclusiveness that would make J.D. Salinger proud.”

Malick became such an iconoclastic, shadowy figure, a public person guarding his privacy fiercely, that his refusal to speak about his movies only elevated  his mythical stature, much like a similar need for complete privacy did the same for director Stanley Kubrick during his lifetime. Much like Salinger did before he died, and Thomas Pynchon and a handful of others, Malick was also not letting any cameras near his face; it’s been said that he actually has a contractual demand that no current photos of him can be used in promoting any of his films.

Whatever had happened — whether he was actually living in France and teaching philosophy, or not — when it was announced that Malick had returned to the world of moviemaking again, and was readying an epic WWII film, The Thin Red Line, every young actor in Hollywood stepped up and expressed their desire to audition for a part in the film, any part, to the point where Malick could not avoid what he felt was being hounded by agents and actors no matter where he turned. Despite the twenty-year lay-off, his reputation after just a handful of films was such that he was considered one the best director’s working in modern cinema.

In 1996, Malick asked for a divorce from Morette, and then married Alexandra “Ecky” Wallace, said to have been the best friend of his high-school sweetheart (she is the mother of actor Will Wallace, who appears in his films The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life).

Production on The Thin Red Line went overlong, per usual, but there were incredible performances, even though there were some performances we never got to see — Adrien Brody’s, for instance, was left on the cutting-room floor. What may have hurt Malick’s return to the cinematic top of the heap was the poor timing of 1998’s The Thin Red Line‘s release, coming out just one month after Steven Spielberg’s much-admired and Academy Award-nominated WWII war epic Saving Private Ryan.

It would be another seven years before his next film, only his fourth feature — The New World — was released, in late 2005.

This time, Malick sought to go back to the beginning of American civilization, to the arrival of Europeans and their clashes with native Americans, to tell a fairly conventional love story. Arriving with a British expedition in Virginia in 1607, Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) is captured by Native Americans, but his life is spared thanks to Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), the daughter of the tribe’s chief. Smith and Pocahontas fall in love, to the mutual dismay of the Native Americans and the British both. Smith is sent away, and his death is reported. An unhappy Pocahontas marries settler John Rolfe (Christian Bale), but then Smith turns up alive, and Pocahontas is torn between the two men.

The film, particularly after The Thin Red Line, was a kind of return to Malick’s fascination with big ideas, to a preoccupation with nature, Darwinism and many of the questions that are central to philosophy. It was shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Cinematography, the film’s only Oscar nod); some of the footage was lensed on 65mm, and by now, Malick had decided he would not use any cranes or big rigs, only handheld cameras and no artificial lighting; in fact, he began using only natural light his films thereafter — and the Indians wore only hand-stitched costumes that would have been made in the early 1600s. He also constructed a fort with wood available only in the forests of the Chickihominy River in Virginia, a just a few miles from the actual settlement.

The New World was not successful at the box office, but that wasn’t slowing down Malick, who had already begun working on his next project. Shortly after The New World was completed, the first rumors began to circulate that Malick’s next film would be even more epic in scope.

Malick, you see, had decided to return to Q, his most ambitious film to date, his magnum opus. Every film he’d made before this point had led up to this point, and he was finally ready to make the film he considered his most important work thus far. Rumors began leaking out about the project. Some believed that it was going to be set in the Middle East, but this idea seemed to have been dropped when it was revealed that casting agents were looking for a young boy for an unnamed, top-secret “Hollywood family film.”

The film was apparently to star Heath Ledger as the family patriarch in what was initially described as an impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950’s, but after his sudden death in 2008, Malick turned instead to Brad Pitt, whose production company, Plan B, also stepped in with additional needed independent financing.

In 2008, a synopsis for the film had appeared, courtesy of Apparition, who had picked up distribution for the film, revealing that Malick’s film — now titled The Tree of Life — was a “cosmic epic, a hymn to life.” Production designer Jack Fisk revealed in an interview that he had never seen Malick so excited about a film and, in his opinion, felt that this new film they were working on could change cinema “a bit.”

The storyline was revealed to be about the evolution of an 11-year-old boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken), raised in the 1950s by an authoritarian father, representing “Nature” and a loving mother, representing “Grace.” Following the birth of his two brothers, Jack must learn to share the unconditional love he receives and face up to the exaggerated individualism of his stern father who is obsessed with his sons’s success.

Jack and his two brothers play in the wide streets, swing on the trees, waft around with their ethereally lovely mother by the river (other locations included the Barton Springs pool, located in Zilker Metropolitan Park, and cotton fields in Manor, Texas).

Then one day a tragedy tips this already precarious balance, and the plot becomes a personal reflection, confession, and requiem for a dead brother and Jack absorbs what has happened, just like Malick had done in his own immediate family, which had suffered two tragedies that no doubt had a profoundly deep effect on Malick, and the particular biographical details managed to find their way into The Tree of Life, making it his most autobiographical film thus far.

The first of these tragedies had happened nearly twenty years earlier, in the summer of 1968, sometime after Malick’s youngest brother Larry, in his early 20s at the time, had gone to Spain to study guitar with Segovia, a taskmaster of legendary proportions. Terry then learned that his brother, who had suffered from serious bouts of depression, had broken both his own hands, apparently distraught over his studies.

Movie critic and author Peter Biskind, writing in his excellent 1998 book on the 1970’s New Hollywood filmmakers and their films, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, reported that Terry’s father asked him to go over to Spain to help Larry, but that Terry refused. His father went himself, and returned with Larry’s body after Larry had apparently committed suicide.

The second tragedy happened when Malick’s other brother Chris, the middle brother, was at some point in the past severely burnt in a car accident that killed his wife (we’re not sure when this happened, but Biskind wrote about it in a 1999 article for Vanity Fair, The Runaway Genius,” about Terrence Malick).

Chris Malick died on December 29, 2008, age 60, just two years before the release of The Tree of Life, and his death, and what had happened to him in the car accident, may explain the peripheral presence of a burned boy in the later Waco scenes in The Tree of Life, as well as the main reason for the centerpiece of the film, the unexplained death, at age 19, of Jack’s beloved brother, R.L., played by a young Brad Pitt look-alike named Laramie Eppler.

While the film was in its initial stages, the director and his advance crew would drive at random looking for a small town with a certain feel to it. He wanted it to be aesthetically interesting with a mid-50’s look. He found it in Smithville, Texas. Malick had decided to cast the roles of the three brothers locally in Texas, and forewent the usual talent agency route, choosing instead to send out his own scouting team — consisting of associate producer Nicolas Gonda and Malick’s assistant A.J. Edwards — with instructions to find three young inexperienced kids who were to have strong personalities but were to also be well-mannered in an old-fashioned Midwestern sense. His team ended up, over the course of two years, seeing over 10,000 kids, and the young actors they chose proved to be remarkably unconscious of the camera and perfect for their roles.

The casting team (with Casting Director Vicki Boone) were also tasked with the responsibility for finding people to fill other characters, and they ended up going to local events, festivals, Bingo nights, and town hall meetings in Central Texas. 90-95% of the actors they found for these secondary roles were casted with non-professionals.

There’s no doubt that Malick patterned the character of Jack, as seen later in adulthood (played by Sean Penn), after himself. He’s described by the film’s distributor this way: “a lost soul in a modern world, seeking to discover amid the changing scenes of time that which does not change: the eternal scheme of which we are a part. When he sees all that has gone into our world’s preparation, each thing appears a miracle—precious, incomparable. Jack, with his new understanding, is able to forgive his father and take his first steps on the path of life.”

By the middle of 2008, principal photography had begun with a three-month shoot in Smithville and Austin, Texas under the expertise of Malick’s trusted New World cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. A huge oak tree was unearthed, relocated and transplanted to represent a “tree of life” behind an unassuming Smithville, Texas suburban house that had been rented out for the shoot.

Cryptic cell phone images also began to surface online during the film’s shoot, showing that Malick actually was lensing scenes in remote locations like Goblin Valley in Utah, which apparently was supposed to look like prehistoric earth (other scenes were shot at the Bonneville Salt Flats as well as Mono Lake, Yosemite and Death Valley in California) Another fan, shopping at a local Wal-Mart, snapped a photo of the Great Khali, a professional wrestler towering at 7′ 2″, who had apparently been cast to play a caveman (we couldn’t find any photos for you).

Some began to speculate that Brad Pitt’s character was actually going to be a caveman (we would have loved to have seen that). Another joker burping up his own theories about what he’d heard said that “the plot involved a unicorn dreaming of the creation of the universe…” — well, it turns out, he was not far off.

At this point, Malick is said to have recruited 2001‘s special effects wizard, Douglas Trumbull, who had taken a long hiatus — nearly thirty years — from Hollywood. Reportedly Malick, a Trumbull fan, approached him about the effects work and mentioned that he did not like the look of computer-generated effects. Trumbull later told Vanity Fair, “Terry is a friend, he said to me, ‘I don’t like CG.’ I said, ‘Why not do it the old way? The way we did it in 2001?’”

Working with visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, Trumbull used a variety of materials for the Creation sequence. “We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be,” said Trumbull in one interview. “It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business. Terry didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like. We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.

In addition to Trumbull’s special effects, Malick also worked with Double Negative in London, and the fluid-based effects were developed by Peter and Chris Parks, who had previously worked on similar effects for The Fountain.

By early 2009, the first reports began to surface about a second offshoot-film, titled Voyage of Time, that was being prepared for IMAX release, describing what appeared to be imagistic and mysterious musings about the creation of the universe, which of course begins with the creation of each new life’s perspective and their own place in the world as they search for the meaning of their own existence.

Visual effects artist Mike Fink told Empire magazine: “We’re just starting work on a project for Terrence Malick, animating dinosaurs, the film is Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. It’ll be showing in IMAX—so the dinosaurs will actually be life size – and the shots of the creatures will be long and lingering.”

What we actually see in the sequence is quite interesting, as you can see in the clip we’ve included, and still open for debate as to its meaning: a healthy dinosaur happens upon an injured one, pinning down the injured dinosaur’s head with its foot; then, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the dinosaur decides to leave it alone and walk away.

Brad Pitt tried to explain what was happening with the inclusion of the Creation sequence when he told Empire magazine in 2010 that the story of the kid growing up in the ‘50s — “with a mother who’s grace incarnate and a father who’s oppressive in nature” — was also “juxtaposed with a little, tiny micro-story of the cosmos, from the beginning of the cosmos to the death of the cosmos. So that’s where the sci-fi – or the sci-fact – comes in.”

What is really interesting is to look back at the first draft of Malick’s screenplay, to see how the action is described in his own words: “We show the growth of the cosmos, the great epic of evolution, from the Big Bang through the long ages of geological time, down to the present day. We begin in the chaos or nothingness out of which space and time arose — in a realm beyond our power to imagine, without form or coherence, void of here and now. Suddenly, like joy replacing sadness and brooding, light breaks forth, and the universe is born.”

(Read the rest of the description in these pages of the rough draft from Malick’s script below)

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There are multiple ways to look at the Creation sequence — does it refute the idea of the Judeo-Christian view of God’s handiwork, confirming evolution’s role, or does it confirm some kind of perspective about an unseen God’s presence, seeing as how the film starts and ends with a mystical gaseous presence that appears to be the egg from which the world hatched?

Movie critics, and those with opinions about movies who aren’t really movie critics but nevertheless have their own thoughts about the film will, of course, continue to choose to interpret the Creation sequence in their own way, like this professed atheist who said The Tree of Life ultimately highlighted “the negative impact that religion has on grief,” or this Christian, who said the film “manages to showcase both man’s glory and his inestimable smallness. Life, in the end, is not about us making a mark. It’s about tuning our ears to the symphony of life around us….”

It’s safe to say that the Creation sequence confused and confounded and even angered many filmgoers who apparently failed to fully embrace why Malick would include such a sequence, particularly splicing it into the first third of this particular movie, and (no big surprise here) critics were often pretty harsh about it, even those who thought it was a pretty good movie, including David Denby, who, writing about the film in The New Yorker, described The Tree of Life as an “insufferable masterpiece.”

The Tree of Life was premiered at the Palais’ Grand Theatre Lumiere for the 64th Festival de Cannes, where it received an extended ovation from the audience and ultimately won the Palme d’Or award, but director Terrence Malick let Bill Pohlad and Dede Gardener, the movie’s producers, pick up his award. Malick was there, however, quietly standing in the back, and not drawing any attention to himself. He didn’t want to discuss the film with the press, saying through his actors, who spoke on his behalf, that he’d hoped audiences would interpret for themselves, as they would a poem they didn’t quite understand.

The DVD release of the film doesn’t feature anything close to a “director’s commentary” or other such explanatory tools to help with understanding what Malick intended — Malick’s films aren’t to be understood. They’re to be experienced, embraced, and surrendered to.

Since its release, The Tree of Life regularly places in lists of the best films released so far in the 2010 decade, and in January of this year, it was named the number one film of the past five years in this unofficial Slate blog.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.