Is Tree of Life Full of Shit?


July 8, 2014
Running Time
Previous Review
Next Review

(The shortened opening)

NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic; I remember it so you don't have to. We all know how the traditional movie formula is supposed to go.

(Cut to footage of The Avengers)

NC (vo): A three-act structure, a cast of characters dealing with a conflict, structured around a beginning, middle and end. (the poster for How to Train Your Dragon 2 pops up) Some do it well, (the poster for The Last Airbender pops up) some do it poorly, but that's how most people do it.

NC: That's probably why a lot of folks get pissed off when they see a film like Tree of Life.

(Footage of Tree of Life)

NC (vo): Yeah, there's characters and even some conflicts, but the story is backwards, frontwards, sideways and sometimes just abandoned altogether for pretty pictures and even a dinosaur. Yeah! A dinosaur is in a story about family dilemmas! If that's... even what this film is about! As you'd imagine, people were pretty split. Some say it was a pretentious hand-job to itself, while others say it's a beautiful representation of life. But that's not the only movie people have felt that way about in the past.

(Cut to shots of the following movies the NC mentions:)

NC (vo): Films like 2001, Barton Fink...

(Cut to a montage of movies by David Lynch, such as Lost Highway, Blue Velvet, and Eraserhead)

NC (vo): ...and just about anything by David Lynch...

(Cut back to Tree of Life)

NC (vo): ...all have stories that seem to abandon the three-act structure at some point, and just dive into the strange and surreal. There's no clear answer on what they're about or what they're trying to say. It's all left open to the viewer's interpretation.

NC: But the question is, how much should be left open to the viewer's interpretation? I mean, if I was just to go... (leans in close to the camera, then says in a slow, low voice...) "bananas"... (The word "bananas" zooms in slowly, while an choir note is heard briefly) ...and told you that was open to interpretation, why wouldn't I be praised?

NC (vo): Why doesn't anybody who does anything get hailed as a genius because they say they're just leaving it open to interpretation? Well... let's take it in baby steps.

(Cut to another clip of The Avengers)

NC (vo): We know the three-act structure we stated before.

(Cut to footage Who Framed Roger Rabbit)

NC (vo): But not every movie is going to have the exact same one. There has to be variation, obviously, on characters, story and so on, if the film is going to be remembered or worth anything. That is, except for (poster for the following pops up...) Transformers; somehow that gets away with it.

(Cut back to Tree of Life)

NC (vo): With that said, even in a three-act structure, not everyone follows the beginning, middle and end in that order.

(Cut to footage of the following...)

NC (vo): Films like Pulp Fiction, Memento, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all have been praised for telling their stories out of the traditional order. But there's still a flowing narrative and characters you want to see go through a satisfactory resolution.

NC: But even that sometimes can be played with, even in big blockbusters.

(Cut to footage of Inception)

NC (vo): Remember the ending to Inception? Most of the movie is very clear and straightforward. I mean, for a [Christopher] Nolan movie. But the ending is purposefully left open for your interpretation. Yeah, a part of you is driven nuts by that, but at the same time, you have to admit, there's probably part of you that appreciates the film for not spoonfeeding everything to you. The film is about confusing dreams with reality, so most people caught on that the ending should do exactly that: blur the line between what was real and what wasn't. Most people agree it was the perfect way to end it. Inception is obviously not the first film to do this, though.

(Cut to a clip of Pulp Fiction)

NC (vo): Lots of elements in popular movies are left open to the audience's imagination. What's in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction?

(Cut to a clip of Lost In Translation)

NC (vo): What did Bill Murray say at the end of Lost In Translation? Lots of people are satisfied that the movie challenges them to fill in the blanks on their own.

(Cut back to Pulp Fiction)

NC (vo): They like that a certain part can mean whatever you want it to mean, and thus make it your own unique movie, different from anybody else's.

(Cut back to Lost In Translation)

NC (vo): Whatever you hear Bill Murray whisper to Scarlett Johansson is always going to be different from what another person hears.

NC: Now, if a certain part of a movie can give you that, why not the majority of a film?

(Cut to footage of Mulholland Drive)

NC (vo): I still have no idea what Mulholland Drive is about, but I do remember characters and imagery dealing with dreams, nightmares, the passion for success, and the anxiety of failure. Even the opening has a point of view of a person waking up and going back to sleep. So, my guess is, rather than leaning towards the details of the story, they're leaning towards the details of emotion.

(Cut to footage of The Wizard of Oz)

NC (vo): The Wizard of Oz is not a very logical story. There's lots of things we realize when we grow up that don't make sense about it. But we follow it because the emotions are so strong. We fear for Dorothy; we're happy for her; we're on board with every emotion she's feeling, even if the story doesn't always add up.

(Cut to footage of the climax of Star Wars: A New Hope)

NC (vo): I did a video a long time ago on when it's right to nitpick, and I said that every film is an illusion, that, at some point, something's not going to make sense with it, just like any illusion in life.

(Cut to footage of Mulholland Drive and Tree of Life, in that order)

NC (vo): Films like Mulholland Drive and Tree of Life are trying to take it a step further. They don't bother with realistic or flowing narrative; their goal is to go for pure emotion. And emotion, as we all know, is rarely logical. Films like this are drenched in that. These are movies led by thoughts and feelings, not rhyme and reason. They're trying to take that emotional abstractness in the ending of Inception and stretch it out to be the main focus.

NC: But with that said, when is it done right and when is it done wrong?

(Cut to alternating footage of The Sopranos and Lost)

NC (vo): A lot of people were pissed off at the endings of TV shows like The Sopranos and Lost, and without giving away too much, let's just say they didn't answer a lot of questions raised. Now, why would that not work here and yet work in something like...

(Cut to a clip of...)

NC (vo): ...Pulp Fiction, where we didn't get all the answers, either?

(Cut back to The Sopranos and Lost)

NC (vo): Part of it is, the two shows are mostly about getting answers. Sopranos focused on battle plans and strategies; Lost focused on constantly figuring out a mystery. While both had abstract moments, they clearly weren't the focus of the show. The characters want to know what's going on, that is their goal. So, it also becomes our goal. Therefore, as the show gets closer and closer to telling us what's going to happen to them, or what has been happening to them, we get pretty angry when we're not supposed to know the answer.

(Cut back to Pulp Fiction)

NC (vo): In Pulp Fiction, however, they know what's in the briefcase, so we don't need to.

(Cut to Lost In Translation)

NC (vo): In Lost In Translation, they know what Bill Murray said, so we don't need to.

(Cut back to The Sopranos and Lost)

NC (vo): In these shows, they don't know what happened, so... by God, one of us needs to know what happened! Either the audience or the characters. That's what they were focusing on throughout the majority of the series. It's emotionally unfulfilling because we just feel frustration, and that wasn't either of the shows' purpose. They were supposed to be satisfying endings that promised a lot but delivered little.

(Cut to footage of Gerry)

NC (vo): There's an abstract film called Gerry, directed by Gus Van Sant, which most people despise, and honestly, I don't entirely blame them. It's two guys walking in the desert... and that's it. There's nothing special about the desert, it's not shot in any particular way, it's just two guys walking in a very ordinary-looking desert. I won't ruin the ending, though really, I don't think it would be ruined even if I told you, but most of the movie is them walking in the desert in total silence. Because of this, we can't get emotionally invested, because we don't know if they're even emotionally invested. They barely talk!

(Cut to a shot of Waiting For Godot)

NC (vo): In something like Waiting For Godot, they mostly speak nonsense, but what they're feeling is always in plain sight.

(Cut back to Gerry)

NC (vo): Here, you can't grasp onto anything, so very few got into whatever the film's intention was. If a film is supposed to make an emotional connection with you, there better be some goddamn emotion in it.

(Cut to a clip of Synecdoche, New York)

NC (vo): But while some films can piss you off and always leave you pissed off, others can actually get better the more you think about it.

NC: You know the phrase "You have to see it twice in order to fully get it"? Well... sometimes, that is actually true. Like, take for example Charlie Kaufman's...

(Cut to footage of Synecdoche, New York, directed by Kaufman, the title of which is displayed on the screen)

NC (vo): ...Synd... um,, (looks at title) that, New York. When I first saw this film, it pissed me off. I just couldn't understand any of it. Why was the woman buying a house that was on fire? Why is this guy's grown-up daughter suddenly a little girl? Why do years pass in literally a matter of seconds? I just saw this as just a pretentious exercise in trying to be artsy. But then I gave it another chance, and I tried something a little different. I decided to try asking questions, rather than demanding answers. Why would a woman buy a house on fire? As I thought about it, it reminded me of some people I knew in my life who were going through a bad situation even though they knew it was going to be bad. I think a lot of us have known people like that. Why was his grown-up daughter a child sometimes? When I thought about the phrase that most fathers say to their daughters, where they'll always see them as Daddy's little girl, well, maybe the movie's indicating that's how he literally still sees her. And why did he confuse just a few minutes ago for actually a few years ago? I think most of us have had a moment where you thought something that happened recently actually happened a long time ago, and as you get older, time seems to fly by faster. In the film, these are all very literal interpretations, but it's how he sees things, or at the very least, how he's experiencing it. And suddenly, a film I hated was turning into a film I loved. It was like a world of events, emotions and thoughts unbound by time and fact. By taking those two elements away, I actually found I kind of understood them more. It's doing something totally different and looking at cinema from a completely new point of view; experimenting, not being chained by the three-act structure. And I was seeing something in this movie, as well as film in general, that I never really thought about before.

NC: Now, does that mean you have to like these films and you have to force others to like them? Hell no!

(Cut to another clip of Synecdoche, New York)

NC (vo): You can hate them all you want.

(Cut to footage of Avengers)

NC (vo): Maybe Avengers gave you the most emotional journey you ever had with a film, it's totally possible.

(Cut to a clip of Mulholland Drive)

NC (vo): Everyone is going to have their own reaction to a movie, but when you look at an abstract movie and say it makes no sense, it's no different than when a person comes up to you and says, "You just didn't get it."

(Cut to another clip of Synecdoche)

NC (vo): Yeah, don't you hate those? The jerk-offs who always say, "I don't get it, so it must be dumb," or some fop that says, "You're not smart enough to understand it"? Fuck both those twats!

(Cut back to Tree of Life)

NC (vo): Everyone finds meaning in different places in different ways. If you don't find that with a film like Tree of Life, it's totally understandable. Maybe you need something to connect more to real life. After all, that's what you're living, isn't it? The facts of reality are so strange and out there, why would you want to understand anything else? This is hard enough. But on the other hand, someone else can look at it and see the patterns of life, the passage of time, how both gigantic and insignificant man can truly be.

(Cut to another clip of Avengers)

NC (vo): But with that said, maybe someone can see the exact same qualities in a more concrete film. It's just different roads to the same experience.

(Cut back to Tree of Life)

NC (vo): But the great thing about film is that there is no one book that says every story has to be like this, or every character has to have a certain arc. Film doesn't have to be a straightforward narrative, it can be an altogether new experience. It can challenge you in different ways you didn't even know you could be challenged in. When the structure, ingenuity, and clever building of a film is there, chances are, you'll feel it.

(Cut to Gerry again briefly)

NC (vo): And when it's half-assed and not much thought is put into it, chances are, you won't feel it.

(Cut back one more time to Tree of Light)

NC (vo): So look at all the different variations film can offer. See what works for you, see what doesn't, and enjoy seeing it transform from a series of sounds and images to one of the most awesome experiences ever – even if you can't explain why.

NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic; I remember it so you don't have to. (gets up from his chair and leaves)

(Credits roll)

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.