In 1931 Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel proved what is now known as the Incompleteness Theorem. He demonstrated that within any given system, a robot for example, there would always be at least one proposition, which is true, but which cannot be proven using the rules and axioms of the system itself. Gödel used a variation of the classic Liar’s Paradox to show this. The statement, “This sentence is false,” can never be verified or falsified without a contradiction emerging, thus the inherent limitations of the system are revealed. If you think of the universe, which we are a part of, as a system, then it is by definition incomplete. In other words, unless humanity manages to do the unthinkable and transcend the black void, a complete understanding of the universe will never be within our grasp. And even then, the theorem would presumably still apply. The plight of the inquiring mind will only be exacerbated when it undertakes to understand whatever it is we should find beyond the infinite.
Logicians may balk at the application of this proof ahead of mathematical philosophy, but the basic principle is immutable in its genius and simplicity, and compelling when considered as the technical constant that frames Terrence Malick’s fluid emotional lexicon.
“The Tree of Life” is only the fifth film in Malick’s 40-year career. A former Rhodes Scholar and philosophy lecturer at MIT, the famously reclusive director has used each of his films as tools of philosophical expression. Existential themes, usually verbalized in rambling voice-overs and explored through the actions of deeply flawed characters, are a staple of Malick’s films. In “Badlands” (1973) it was a pair of murderous lovers set against the glory of the natural world. In “Days of Heaven” (1978) the impediment of love in the face of death emphasized the roles of both in giving meaning to life. In “The Thin Red Line” (1998) it was the warring impulses of creation and destruction, as experienced through the eyes of the innocent. In “The New World” (2005) it was the question of human exceptionalism and the accompanying problem of moral relativism. In “The Tree of Life” it is the darkness of the unknown, the affliction of perpetual ignorance.
“The Tree of Life” is an attempt to reconcile the deepest intrinsic yearnings of our species with the fundamental, arbitrary harshness of the reality in which we exist. We tend to separate ourselves from that reality. Our intellect allows us to think ourselves different from animals, disconnected from the world that spawned us and sustains us. It is that arrogance, coupled with the insurmountable ignorance implied by Gödel that gives rise to the notion of God, a concept which, despite the film’s Biblical undertones, seems almost secondary, as if one of many hypotheses unable to offer any more insight into the nature of existence than any other. Because if God is the answer for life, then what is the answer for God?
The brilliance of the film isn’t that it ponders the heavens or asks impossible questions. It is in the director’s method. After a relatively brief introduction to the human story, the film gives a spectacular visual history of the universe, chronicling what we know so far, more or less, from the Big Bang to abiogenesis. We even get a small glimpse of what “Jurassic Park” may have looked like if Terrence Malick had directed it. It is with that cosmological context that we return to the O’Brien family in sleepy 1950s Waco, Texas (Malick’s hometown). Now we are prepared to properly consider Mr. O’Brien’s (Brad Pitt) pressing feelings of inadequacy, Mrs. O’Brien’s (Jessica Chastain) split loyalties between her husband and children, and young Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) welling frustration and rage as he struggles to makes sense of his lot in life. Instead of diminishing the otherwise infinitesimal human story, the film’s cosmic mid-section amplifies it. Because for all the astonishing beauty of this sequence, it lacks the greatest development in the universe’s long history — consciousness. In this way we come to see the trivial problems of the O’Brien family — of our own families — as significant, even in the vastness and majesty of eternity.
“The Tree of Life” is the fruit of a lifelong internal struggle. It is imperfect, bewildering, beautiful, maddening, confounding, astounding and sublime. It is wholly without answers. Poetically incomplete. My gut tells me it is a masterpiece. An extension of Stanley Kubrick’s equally ambitious “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It represents the rarest of events in modern cinema, that is, naked ambition on the grandest scale met with the talent, funds, philosophical maturity and keenness of mind to realize that ambition. Whether history deems it an unabashed success or an abysmal failure, “The Tree of Life” is a risk few filmmakers would ever dare. And that, at least, deserves our applause.