Malick’s 2001: A Sense of Perspective

tree3Don’t know how much time I have right now, lets see how far I get before I get called away-

The similarities between Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  Space Odyssey might be fairly well-known, but I thought I’d mention them here, as the more I think about it, the more I find it surprising and illuminating in how they oddly complement each other.

2001 is one of the most epic films ever made, in its sense of the passage of time and where it places mankind in the cosmos. It begins with the Dawn of Man sequence, in which man-apes gain intelligence enough to use bones as tools -typically for humanity, these tools are weapons- and sets us on the path to orbiting nuclear weapons in one of the most famous jump-cuts in film history. This intelligence is ‘gifted’ by the Monolith, which is either an alien tool of communication or an alien itself. Increasingly marginalised first by the huge desert vistas of prehistoric Africa and then by the vast voids between Earth/Space Station/Moon and finally Jupiter, mankind’s unimportance seems self-assured until Bowman enters the Stargate and begins another step in evolution.

The Tree of Life reinforces this perspective of humanity in the cosmos, by actually outdoing Kubrick- Malick shows us the very beginning of the universe, the formation of the first stars, our galaxy, our sun and the Earth, and then the beginnings of life. We witness dinosaurs prior to them being wiped out by a cosmic whim of fate/gravity and a falling asteroid, and later we are thrown forwards to the death of all life on Earth as it becomes consumed by the death-throes of our sun. In this great cosmic scale of things, it’s like we never existed, our actual existence something of cosmic chance, any sign we ever existed lost as our planet is blasted to a cinder in the dark.

But Malick is also telling us something else here- that however insignificant we seem in this cosmic arena, we do matter, each and everyone of us. He shows us a family in 1950s America, childhood and adulthood, and the town in which they live. We see their relationships and how they care for each other, their laughter and their tears, their triumphs and frustrations and the joy of nature and being alive and the pain of grief and loss.

Kubrick’s film is rather colder- intellectual progress distances mankind from the natural world (we see people existing in sterile, created environments of space capsules and stations),  and also distances from each other (personal relationships decidedly cool and awkward, dialogue clipped and inane, formalities such as birthdays just perfunctory nods to old habits). The characters are, frustratingly, hardly alive, and pale in comparison to HAL, the AI that somehow seems more human than those it serves.

The world of 2001 at least appears to be quite Godless, as if humanity in creating its technological worlds has done away with God entirely and in so doing lost its soul, although it can also be ‘seen’ that 2001 is ironically quite a religious film, certainly if one takes the view that the Alien intelligence that guides humanity is God and the Monoliths are its Angels, and Bowman’s death a moment of resurrection as he becomes the Starchild. The Tree of Life meanwhile is more traditional and overtly religious in its repeated callings by various narrators to God, its use of religious imagery and rites and religious music. God is not a part of the machine/Monolith, here God is a part of nature and the film even depicts Heaven, a shoreline where our characters all meet again, even seeing themselves as different people of different ages- adult Jack meeting his child self and even his own mother, back when she was possibly younger than he appears  to be in the undefined ‘now.’ This later moment, when adult Jack witnesses his parents in the wake of his younger brothers death decades before, suggests that he is not reliving his own life as much as the life of someone else, but his perspective is one of almost Godlike omnipresence, of stepping through Time.

But the thing that both films clearly share is this sense of the Big Questions; what are we in this impossibly unfathomable universe, in which are utterly lost and insignificant in this immense incalculable span of time? What is our purpose, and are we alone? What is the meaning of life? is there something ‘More’?

In essence, 2001 burns cold and logical while The Tree of Life burns warm and emotional.  Both films share bold use of Classical music and methodology of Pure Cinema, a cinema of images and sound  rather than narrative. Both films have little dialogue, and little of this dialogue actually drives either film- rather it is the interplay of images and music that progress the films from beginning to end. Neither film holds the viewers hand and explains anything- both films demand audience’s attention and the effort to construct meaning from the events portrayed. It struck me whilst rewatching The Tree of Life the other night just how alike the two films are, and how masterful Malick’s film is- even to the point that it possibly surpasses Kubrick’s film.

I wonder what Kubrick would have thought of The Tree of Life, and indeed, what Malick (media-shy and private as he is) thinks of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Tree of Life may seem an unlikely example of what Malick would consider a science fiction epic but its connections and similarities to 2001 seem inescapable. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Oh well, it’s certainly something, if nothing else, when contemporary cinema can raise such musings.

Alas, the clock has turned and my time is up. Must go!

2 thoughts on “Malick’s 2001: A Sense of Perspective

  1. I hadn’t thought of 2001 and Tree of Life being so thematically similar, but you make a very good case for it. The difference between one being cold and the other warm certainly seems true. I imagine those who find Malick’s film hard to engage with might disagree, but it’s definitely based in emotion and human interaction, whereas 2001 has that more detached view of mankind.

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