Unfortunately, the cinematography was the only element compelling enough to keep me watching. When a couple stood and left just before the credits rolled, I realized I had wished to do just that many times over the last two and a half hours. Just how much did the jumbled concept and narrative contrast with the camera work? There are three young boys in the film. Sean Penn plays one of them as an adult. My friend and I, with a random third guy that heard us talking and sidled up, each thought Penn was playing a different child as an adult. I think I at least got that one right, but that says it all.
Just what was this film about? I am tempted to be swayed by my myth and depth psychology studies and say "the shadow." Some of the beautiful shots we see most often are of the shadows of children, and others, dancing and twisting along the earth, often on concrete. And the shadow side of a person, where all the unacknowledged, undeveloped yet still percolating traits sink to lie dormant, looking for ways to get expressed, easily explain the madness of every character here. Repression only lasts so long before the dam bursts.
But Malick's film tries so much more - I think - that this shadow play running through the film gets bombastically paralleled by what I can only guess is supposed to be the grandeur of the creator God. The film starts with a Bible quote from Job and proceeds to show the Big Bang and evolution, microbes and dinosaurs, planets and huge tidal waves. Set to some sort of religious choral music, it is the anti-"2001: A Space Odyssey." If these scenes of multiple and wildly messy upheavals as life and matter gets created in a billion random ways are supposed to suggest a human-like god planning every step of creation, I suggest it does the exact opposite.
So it then seems the film re-focuses on the smaller family story, on the choice humans have: to live in the state of nature, defined here as choosing pleasure for yourself or following a strict orderly life, or the state of grace, defined here as - what? The only explication I could find was that grace means living and loving. Truly loving, not just going through the motions as the father does.
But then there are those dinosaurs. One is shown lame, laying in a river bed. Another, different dinosaur comes running up to it, presumably for an easy meal. After stepping on the lame one's head, it looks down and then leaves. Without eating it. Is Malick suggesting the dinosaur chose grace - to love the fallen brethren - rather than nature - to eat it? While a really wonderful idea, it's rather silly.
There are other plot points from the narrative with the family that make little sense, mostly concerning when and how the youngest brother dies exactly. As a little tale of being raised in a 1950's family of conformity with bitter anger running through them behind the walls of their home, this works pretty well. Combine it with the scenes of god-creation and some incredibly ridiculous ending of dead people reuniting with the living, and you have a massive debacle.
But what an amazing debacle to watch. Perhaps the ad they are featuring, composed of multiple shots from the film, tells all. Come for the cinematography. Leave when it's done.