Terrence Malick has one of film’s great eyes. Few directors can (seemingly) effortlessly bring the natural world to life in the way that Malick can. It is that ability to capture the beauty of the world that allows Malick to deliver one of the most philosophically important movies I’ve ever seen.
The Tree of Life is about the acceptance of nihilism. It asks you to find happiness and peace in the unknowable vastness that is the universe. Shots of whole galaxies taking shape are juxtaposed by the cosmically minuscule events in the life of a family. As we watch the entire existence of prehistoric life get wiped out by a random chance asteroid, we also see the birth of a child. The point of this contrary imagery seems clear. The universe may objectively be unconcerned with life, if it can have concerns, but life is not less beautiful simply for its cosmic meaninglessness. For one to fully appreciate their existence, they must relinquish the idea of purpose and accept the grace of a random, absurd universe.
This idea is played out expertly as our protagonist child is torn between trying to please his mother and father. His father represents the futility of the desire to control your own fate. He is an engineer, and is frequently depicted with his hands in the dirt, or building things. He is trying to exert his control over the natural world around him, as he believes that he can be fulfilled by doing so. The child’s mother, conversely, has given herself over to the grace of the world. She has accepted that she cannot change the course of existence. She is often depicted floating or hovering; she is untethered.
This conflict between the two remains with the protagonist even as an adult. As he reminisces on his deceased brother, he tries to assign meaning to the events of his childhood. During his memories we see a beautiful rendition of the big bang and the creation of the universe. We see the unimaginable scope of all that is. These images are not presented to us to define our insignificance, however. As his mother grows content and his father grows weary of the world, our protagonist realizes that it is her acceptance of her universal insignificance that allows her the freedom to be happy. The film posits that because so much of existence is outside of our control, you must be willing to accept that meaning is only what you make it. The vastness of the universe is unimportant because it is unknowable to you. The fact that, with such microscopic chances, you came into existence is beautiful by itself whether there is any purpose or not. When you have so little control, your life and those of the people you care about really are all that matter on a pragmatic level.
As our main characters memories are swirled in with stunning images of trees, water, wildlife, the cosmos, and any other amount of natural phenomena, you realize that he too has given himself to the grace of the universe. He is seeing the connected plane that humanity and the natural world share. The film ends with him joining his family in an abstract representation of paradise, finally having accepted his place in the universe.
It is odd to say that a film can find the beauty and joy in the philosophical idea of nihilism, but this film does just that. Through genuinely beautiful images, and a loosely presented, but ultimately tight plot, The Tree of Life is able to succeed at presenting complex philosophy and natural aesthetic beauty.