This East of Eden aspect mingles beautifully with a 2001: A Space Odyssey quality: Malick gorgeously imagines the creation of Earth and its development through periods of fire and mayhem. We see wonderfully done shots of the early days of the planet that include images of dinosaurs. At one point, one dinosaur lies stricken and perhaps dying on the ground while another dinosaur comes up and seems bent on killing it — but then apparently thinks better of this and walks away again. It’s as if Malick is illustrating the most rudimentary appearance of mercy.
As the boy wonders what it is his father has turned him into (via monologues that play out against cosmic images worthy of 2001) and his mother wonders why God has taken from her her son, each of these characters ultimately stands for the same idea: That we are all, in a sense, children of a great power that we can never hope to understand. Again and again, Malick returns to a simple, fascinating image of a flame-like light, glowing and throbbing as magnificently as the Burning Bush did in The Ten Commandments. Special effects have come a long way since the 1950s, and it’s now fully within the power of the most advanced visual-effects teams to awe the viewer. Malick adds to the potency by using beautiful arias on the soundtrack.
It’s entirely proper, and refreshingly unusual, for a filmmaker to try to use the majesty of cinema to make us feel the majesty of God. Though The Tree of Life is often vague to the point where different viewers may come away with very different ideas about what it all means, Malick has created a mesmerizing work centered on a deep wellspring of respect for the omnipotent.