About twenty minutes into Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” there is a sequence that chronicles the creation of the universe. There is darkness, then supernovas of stellar light, volcanic eruptions, fire, and colossal swells of waves and gushing water. Once the earth as we have come to know and recognize it has taken shape, we see dinosaurs. When the first behemoth, a wounded plesiosaur, appeared on screen, a woman sitting behind me in the theater said, quite loudly, “We should have gone to the movie next door.”
Mr. Malick’s creation interlude, complete with dinosaurs and single-celled amoeba blobs, has been a divisive element of his film among audience members and critics alike. This is mainly because the more conventional 1950s-era plotline (done, in typical Malick fashion, unconventionally) is so flawlessly realized. It follows the coming of age story of young Jack (Hunter McCracken), and his relationships with his mother, father and brother. It conveys the unadulterated vigor of childhood with such boundless joy that at times, it made me want to do nothing more than run; run alongside the boys with their lithe bodies and lanky legs, through the tall grass and the paved streets and underneath the billowing laundry on clotheslines. It also captured the grief, the inexplicable rage, the fall from innocence in some stunning moments which have been haunting me since I saw the film. The interplay and conflict between these emotions of pity, rage, fear and compassion as we experience them through young Jack is where the purpose of our dinosaurs is revealed.
Shortly after the disgruntled woman’s unsolicited comment, we are introduced to two more dinosaurs. I know very little about dinosaurs and am wary about using Wikipedia as a reference, so I will just describe these dinosaurs as medium-sized and raptor-like. The camera first lingers on a smaller one as it lies in a creek apparently injured and near death. A larger dinosaur but similar in figure hops toward it, almost playfully. It studies the wounded creature and then forces its clawed foot onto the wounded creature’s head, either in an attempt to stomp it to death or suffocate it. Curiously, the predator lets up, and gives its former prey a couple of affectionate taps on the head, and hops away. I know what you’re thinking, and I’m just as cynical as the next person: “Dinosaurs can’t show affection,” or “dinosaurs aren’t noble or compassionate,” or “c’mon Terrence Malick, gives us some harsh, bloody realism!” Okay, maybe you weren’t thinking exactly that. But perhaps you thought the moment was either ridiculous, or, in my case, oddly moving.
I think the interaction between those two particular dinosaurs serves a vital purpose as the film progresses from prehistory into young Jack’s narrative. Yes, young boys in the prime of their youth can be mischievous and even cruel. But through Mr. Malick’s eyes, a child’s fall from innocence is a devastating event. The way the camera lingers momentarily on images such as a boy’s singed, burned scalp, or a dog with blood matting its fur; the dim lighting, the way the camera slithers in between and around the gang of boys like an unseen snake. The dinosaur’s urge to commit violence is animalistic, but is it also the same bestial urge which influences Jack to commit acts of vandalism, to break into a home, and most disturbingly, to tell his brother to place his hand in front of a BB gun and then pull the trigger? It is certainly valid to say that Jack’s expression of rage is connected to his fraught relationship with his father and that adolescent stalwart known as peer pressure, and not from any deep, primal, prehistoric urges. I mean, dinosaurs did not suffer from peer pressure or Oedipal complexes, did they?
Even more thought-provoking than young Jack’s expressions of rage is his extreme sense of guilt after he commits or even witnesses other boys committing these acts. Much like the dinosaur’s gentle pats, young Jack, after the BB gun incident, acts out silly but kind gestures when he and his brother are together in their room. Jack takes a small electric fan and holds it up to his brother’s face in an attempt to cool him off; he pulls brother’s his lips upward with his fingers in a forced smile. I can’t recall if Jack actually verbalizes an apology, but his actions speak for themselves, and he does look his younger brother in the face and tells him, “You’re my brother.”
In “The Tree of Life,” Jack, both young and old, asks questions to some unseen supreme being, questions that are never clearly answered. Malick’s film does much the same to its audience. What is that confounding flame? How did Jack’s younger brother die? And the query of this essay–why did “The Tree of Life” need dinosaurs? It needed the dinosaurs so we could ponder yet another question: what is that essence that drives us to commit heinous acts of violence one moment and act compassionately the next? And to propose the possibility that maybe, just maybe, dinosaurs and humans did share some shred of emotional intelligence. And, even more boldly, to suggest that whatever form of life may succeed us will inherit our emotional intricacies, and hopefully, surpass them.