The Tree of Life Blu-ray Review

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"Mother, Father. Always you wrestle inside me."

by Casimir Harlow Nov 16, 2018 at 10:01 AM

  • Movies review


    The Tree of Life Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £25.99

    The Tree of Life Film Review

    Divisive auteur Terrence Malick's seminal 2011 masterwork, The Tree of Life, is a majestic visual ode to the competing forces of nature and grace in the path through childhood and adulthood, across the ages of time.

    Once a celebrated director who had - across four decades - made but four films, it's hard to rationalise this man as the same filmmaker who came up with the ponderous, indulgent and frankly utterly pretentious Song to Song and Knight of Cups, made back-to-back in a tenth of the time it took for his earlier features to gestate. Even To the Wonder started to shows signs of him heading in this direction, but his earlier run - Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World - which culminated in The Tree of Life, was something approaching a perfect filmography up until that point.

    For those who allow Malick's mood poem in; who allow it to wash over them and embrace everything that it has to give - because, let's be honest, you don't watch a Terrence Malick film, you absorb it - then The Tree of Life is an immensely powerful picture - even more expansive here in its three hour extended cut - relating the upbringing of a group of children under a strong but bitter father and a graceful but repressed mother, juxtaposed not only with the adult life of one of the children, and how his experiences shaped him, but indeed the birth of the very planet itself, within an exploding universe of atomic wonder.

    You don't watch a Malick film, you absorb it.

    Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are beautifully on-point as the parents that lead the tale of tough but loving childhood, whilst Sean Penn is the focal point of one of the children grown up, dealing with the fallout. Seldom about the dialogue - most of Malick's features subsist on an ethereal voiceover provided by the characters - and much more about the shots, looks, mood and music, The Tree of Life has something for everybody to relate to, whether it's the tough father, bitter that he never embraced his calling in life, the sibling who was always the golden boy, or the inner conflict of faith that the death of a child can produce even in the most god-fearing person. Every shot a perfectly framed image of visual wonder, and every word a considered drop of added thoughtfulness that will stay with you long after the film has finished, there is so much to experience; so much to engage with and relate to, and just plain behold.

    At the top of his game, Malick makes the glass skyscrapers in the Big City look more beautiful than you could ever imagine; captures a flock of hundreds and hundreds of birds moving in a stunning, other-worldly wave through the orange-gold sky – a pure force of nature; and explores the birth of the universe with staggeringly opulent 2001-like imagery (Douglas Trumbull was consulted to provide wholly non-CG effects); and he backs his visual style with a remarkably weighty substance, and with those carefully, perfectly chosen words, rounding out a truly resonant and unique experience.

    The Tree of Life Blu-ray Picture

    The Tree of Life The Tree of Life Blu-ray Picture
    According to Criterion, this is a new 4K digital restoration, supervised and approved by director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, delivered in 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition for this new Blu-ray release, in the movie's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 widescreen.

    There really was very little to fault with the original 2011 Blu-ray release, it was largely perfect on all counts, with superior detail allowing you to take in every single one of the director’s majestic shots, and simply no digital defects, artefacts, edge enhancement or unruly DNR. This new 4K restoration perfects what was already largely perfect, further bringing focus to the finer nuances, somewhat unfathomably affording even richer textures and reproducing a glorious, gorgeous palette.

    There’s a nice, healthy grain structure, organically introduced through the location shoot and predominantly natural lighting (Malick loves his natural light, c.f. Days of Heaven), which has been maintained from the film’s 35mm shooting print; and the spectacular, microscopically detailed Big Bang sequences (which were shot for eventual IMAX distribution) look just as stunning, and just as flawless.

    The only downside to a 4K restoration of The Tree of Life is that fact that you've still got to wait to see it in actual 4K.

    The colour scheme is rich and vibrant throughout, yet, again, always feels natural rather than glossy and aggrandised – skin tones realistic and authentic, rather than inexplicably tanned or photoshopped; scenery naturally gorgeous rather than digitally enhanced in post-prod. It’s stunning to behold. Blacks are solid and deep without any signs of crush, allowing for fantastic shadowing and strength even during the lower-level lighting shots.

    Perhaps the only downside to having a newly minted 4K restoration of The Tree of Life on Blu-ray to enjoy in all its perfect glory, is that fact that you know you've still got to wait to see it in actual 4K.

    The Tree of Life Blu-ray Sound

    The Tree of Life The Tree of Life Blu-ray Sound
    It's curious that Criterion have elected to technically 'downgrade' the original DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track that adorned the original 2011 Blu-ray release of The Tree of Life to a 'mere' DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 offering here but, conversely, this is highly suggestive of this being an entirely new mix, and it's every bit was impressive; a great aural accompaniment to a great movie.

    A great aural accompaniment to a great movie.

    Certainly not a bombastic action-packed extravaganza, Malick’s vision is still (as with his entire filmography) one hell of an experience, and the stunningly-designed soundtrack is just one of the many superior ingredients that go towards the collectively amazing whole. Dialogue, the majority of which comes in the form of the aforementioned, fractured narration style, is presented clearly and coherently – even at its quietest moments – from across the frontal array, never smothered by other elements.

    Effects are extremely well-observed, perhaps most obviously during the powerful Big Bang sequence, which offers up all the wild extremes of nature in all their, often overwhelming, glory. However, the quieter, more atmospheric moments are just as well presented, the surrounds used to great effect for all the subtle touches and all the soundscape’s natural elements.

    The soundtrack, which may not have gone down as a resounding success for all those who enjoyed the movie itself (certainly its more operatic elements were a bit grandiose, even for Malickian sensibilities), is nevertheless presented perfectly from across the array, dominating wherever necessary, and coming with an undercurrent of thrumming LFE usage which brings it some serious resonance. Excellent all-round perfection.

    The Tree of Life Blu-ray Extras

    The Tree of Life The Tree of Life Blu-ray Extras
    Around the time of its first Blu-ray release, Malick teased an extended version of his Big Bang sequence (which since gestated into the reportedly 'unrelated' - if you can believe that - Voyage of Time experimental documentary) but he also talked up an utterly ridiculous six hour cut of The Tree of Life, which has more reasonably morphed into this three hour extended cut, available on the second disc of Criterion's exquisite Blu-ray release.

    Noted to feature 'over 50 minutes' of new footage, the new Extended Cut isn't a whole new experience, but it is arguably a better way to experience the film, organically building upon the foundation to provide a more expansive journey - expanding Sean Penn's somewhat underdeveloped character through brief flashbacks, spending a bit more time in the childhood experiences, and with the interstitial universe-forming sequences (as well as in some odd vintage black and white train footage and 70s club footage) and affording Pitt a more rounded character too. The Tree of Life's 139 minute theatrical duration always felt a little short for a Malick film, and whilst this is hardly a six hour cut (although who would actually want that?) it's a more complete Malick experience for fans who want precisely that.

    A lavish package.

    Beyond the great addition of an extended cut on a second disc, the first disc houses not only the theatrical cut but also the main extra features, including the 2011 Documentary Exploring The Tree of Life, new Interviews with actress Jessica Chastain and visual effects supervisor David Glass, a new feature on the cinematography, with Interviews with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and other crew members, a new Interview with film critic Alex Ross about the use of music in the film, and a further 2011 video essay on the film, all rounding out a lavish package that comes complete with a typically nice booklet with further essays and readings on the production.

    The Tree of Life Blu-ray Verdict

    The Tree of Life The Tree of Life Blu-ray Verdict
    Comes with the highest recommendation.

    If you don't know Malick, then Tree of Life is going to be a tough start, but for fans it's arguably one of his most accomplished works, celebrating birth and growth of both the individual and indeed the entire universe in quintessential Malickian style - namely an opulent audiovisual experience that's magically exquisite and utterly unparalleled.

    Criterion have delivered a much-welcome extended cut of The Tree of Life in this 2-disc package that features 4K-remastered video, what looks to be new audio, and a further bounty of new and old extra features. It comes with the highest recommendation.

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £25.99

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