Is a Stanley Kubrick quote from 1968 the best description of The Tree of Life?
There are more than a few interesting parallels between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terrence Malick’s latest film.
In their different ways, both ask questions about the origins of human existence, contain astounding visuals courtesy of Douglas Trumbull, use a lot of classical music and have attracted rave reviews.
Both have also been incorrectly labelled as difficult, divisive films – 2001 was a major critical and financial success but because four prominent New York critics disliked it, was labelled as getting a ‘mixed’ response.
Malick’s latest film currently has outstanding critical scores on review aggregation sites like Metacritic (85), Rotten Tomatoes (85) and a very respectable IMDb rating of 7.9, despite some critics recycling the words ‘pretentious’ and ‘perfume ad’.
But after seeing Malick’s film I was immediately reminded of something Stanley Kubrick once said in a Playboy interview around the release of his sci-fi epic:
Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel its worth living?
Kubrick: Yes, for those who manage somehow to cope with our mortality. The very meaninglessness of life forces a man to create his own meaning.
Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre (a keen enjoyment of living), their idealism – and their assumption of immortality.
As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong – and lucky – he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan (enthusiastic and assured vigour and liveliness).
Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining.
The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
— Stanley Kubrick in interview for Playboy, Stanley Kubrick Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2001, p.73
Is this not a near-perfect summary of The Tree of Life?