§ 1 The charges of anti-materialism seem unfounded to me. Unless, that is, life & its living somehow do not count as “material.” Then, sure, it’s decidedly anti-material.
§ 2 There is an unseemly quality to the film. Rather like you are an intruder on something you should not be privy. By this, I don’t mean there is some secret knowledge conveyed–something ordinarily kept safe and hidden. It’s that the watching the film is akin to watching somebody pray. Even if the one praying don’t care that they’re being seen, there is something not quite awkward but unsettling about the sight of prayer. There’s a guy I see at random hours in my neighborhood who I will come across standing before a tree, sometimes just staring and other times palm extended and gently touching it. I’ve seen him several times now and each time, despite “knowing” he is in some kind of prayerful meditative pose, my initial instinct is to check on his health and well-being. I think it is this internal discord, rather than the mode or object of prayer itself, that makes it so unsettling.
§ 3 The only immediate opinion about the movie that I think I trust is “God, this is boring.” It should go without saying, of course, that I disagree. It is mildly amusing to me that people still go to films, esp. those deemed “serious” by the critical powers that be, without doing any preliminary research. They hear “This was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes,” therefore “I must go,” without so much as queuing up a Malick film in Netflix to see if it is their thing. Hell, even a YouTube search would’ve freed up the evening of those who walked away openly exasperated by their lost two-and-a-half hours. It is not decisively that different from his other films, after all, in terms of its ponderous pacing. Due to the pre-release buzz and the quality of viewer who will inevitably show up to see it (esp. if it ends up getting Oscar hype as well), it may be more unintentionally antagonistic to the viewer than even many of the intentionally antagonistic works of Haneke & van Trier.
§ 4 I was expecting to thoroughly dislike the CGI dinosaurs. But, actually, no. I took them as a kind of counterpoint to Kubrick’s apes. Where for Kubrick, the dawn of man is accompanied by the ape’s awareness of utility and tools, for Malick the evolving patterns of life are steeped in a kind of compassion (the grace spoken of early in the film, I guess) not normally associated with the earth’s original inhabitants.
§ 5 This invocation of “grace” is liable to piss off Anthony, at least when it is first spoken in the film. But I think it is pretty apparent that it holds no ecclesial reference. God the Father, certainly, is neither an answer to nor object of Malick’s prayer. If anything, this God, the Father, comes with its own set of failures and is perhaps as deeply implicated in the processes of life as we all are. These processes of life, I think, are the sources and outlets for the divinity about which Malick is reflecting–a divine grace that informs God no more and no less than it does life as a whole. God the Father, as it were, is perhaps not so much “killed” as he is incorporated into creation as a whole. And importantly, creation is always happening. Creation is not merely directed “forward” into the future (potentiality), or even “backward” into the past (memory); it is happening by way of untold directions and angles, the tangle of branches, of individual shoots colliding and intersecting, joining, breaking apart, and perhaps even dropping the seeds from which other such tangle of branches might form on other trees, other universes united in the mere fact that they’re living. All this is to say, this “grace” is not the gift given or refused by some God–i.e., where some have it, some don’t, or at least not in the same measure–but a grace that has prompted us to name God in the first place. Is it, I wonder, then, a grace given to God by those who choose to name him?
§ 6 There is very early in the film–and I believe also some of the promotional material– a stated opposition between the way of nature v. the way of grace. This is also played out pretty explicitly in the contrast between the way of the Mother and that of the Father. There is a temptation for Malick and viewer alike to keep these two “ways” separate. There may well be a privileging of one over the other, but there is I think no choosing of one way, as it were, and not discovering it is overlaid with the one you sought to avoid. I’m not at all sure if the film agrees with me on this point. Clearly, the Child honors and beatifies the Mother (the way of grace, I suppose)–but it seems to me too naive to do so singularly at the expense of the Father (the way of nature). I’m not convinced that Malick does this: Brad Pitt’s character is flawed, to be sure, but perhaps so because he is subject to the world–the give and the take of social class and societal role–in a way that the Mother only occasionally is depicted as enduring, not because it is essentially deficient. Nature can be no more devoid of grace than grace is absent of nature.
§ 7 As to whether I like the film. I’ve had a few days to consider this question, and I think I can settle on a tentative (but not quite ecstatic, for reasons stated above in § 2) Yes. I loved the domestic-life photography even more than I did the much ballyhooed depiction of evolution. The music was exquisite. The acting was mesmerizing and mysterious. And the parts I did not like so much, e.g. Sean Penn’s beachfront melodrama, were not excessively distracting to everything else the film brought to the table. There is an homogeneity to the film, a certain flatness–none but white faces, mostly male (and one totemic female)–that is unfortunate in terms of its general receptivity as a film. But it also strikes me as a deeply personal, if not autobiographical, film that is not looking for absolution or excuses for its many abstractions. That it feels no apparent burden for doing so, I suppose, may in fact be very problematic, though, and definitely worthy of more thought and criticism.