Terrence Malik's latest feature film, The Tree of Life, is gloriously flawed, so overreaching in its ambition and scope that it can scarcely be expected to leap the bar it set so high. It attempts to portray everything from the Big Bang to the death of our own sun, taking in single-celled organisms, dinosaurs, volcanoes, and embryology along the way. It is also an intimate portrayal of family life in '50s America and how the bereaved deal with loss. It is more than most directors dare tackle in a full career.
Since his debut, the seminal Badlands a lifetime ago in 1973, Malick has only made a handful of films. Renowned for lavishly shot, indisputably gorgeous movies with unusually fractured timelines, his films are either, depending on your natural prejudices, painfully slow or very carefully paced. With mere scraps of conventional narrative, The Tree of Life is a demanding experience for even ardent fans. Narrative elements are interspersed with lengthy sequences of cosmic and natural phenomena. The camera moves longingly over formally analogous images: wave-molded ripples in wet sand play against weathered sedimentary layers in serpentine arroyos; towering clouds of interstellar gas reveal their kinship with drops of paint falling through water.
There are echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Douglas Trumbull handled visual effects for both films) and Charles and Ray Eames' groundbreaking Powers of Ten (1968), which explored everything from the subcellular to the galactic via a family's lakeside picnic. The Eames' film uses the intimate and human purely as a vehicle for the dazzlingly universal. What Malick does, almost miraculously, is put the cosmic at the service of the intimate.