Why The Tree of Life isn’t sci-fi

The newspaper synopses of The Tree of Life, an indie film which is likely showing at an art theater near you, classify the movie as sci-fi. Don’t go see it on that description alone, though, of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should give Tree a complete miss.

The film does have some fantastic elements, and it certainly boasts numerous spectacular and interesting effects, but to call it sci-fi is somewhat of a stretch.

The film’s overture shows us some happy family memories, and then depicts the family in the turmoil of a funeral, setting the tone of the entire film, which, when it’s not exploring the abstract, brings us into alternating joyful and sorrowful memories. 

The weakness of The Tree of Life is that it plods a bit, as many such ‘artsy’ film inevitably seem to think they must do.

The film also seems to show us very little detail about the character’s life, while illustrating far too much detail in odd places.

25 minutes or so of the film, however, are reserved for a beautiful CGI rendering of the history of the universe, starting with the Big Bang, and running through the death of the dinosaurs – I guess this is where the PR people think the sci-fi part comes in.

Yes, this beautiful sequence alone is worth the price of admission, but it sits free of context – or open to interpretation, if you prefer – in quite a strange place in the film.

The film’s plot is about the inner turmoil of a middle-aged man named Jack, who looks back on the death of his brother, and his relationship with his parents. These relationships drive the main action of the film, which takes place almost entirely in thinly connected flashbacks, most of which depict important or difficult lessons that the main character had to learn in childhood.

The scenes run the gamut of emotional string-pulling, and do so effectively, and with a great economy of words, if not an economy of expression. One of the most evocative and compelling scenes comes at the mid-point, when we see Jack sneak into the house of a neighborhood woman he finds attractive. We see him slowly, wordlessly, step through the rooms of her house, knowing that his emotional epiphany will come any second, and his feelings of intense shame will pull us into knots.

The film takes no pains to explain itself to the audience, allowing its nooks to be a puzzle for each audience member to solve on their own, and to bring their own solution. It forces each of us to look deeply into Jack’s relationship and his lessons, and thusly shows us something about ourselves.

The Tree of Life may be falsely advertised as a sci-fi film, and I wouldn’t even say that it’s particularly oriented towards a geeky audience.

Still,  if one is willing to put in the effort, and goes prepared for a movie which might be paced at an uncomfortable gait for most modern audiences, the viewer will find a beautiful and compelling film waiting to be watched. 

The Tree of Life is currently showing in a limited number of theaters.