Are “The Tree of Life” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” the same movie?
Spoiler Notice: This post does not contain any spoilers beyond what you might see in any trailer for either film.
Are The Tree of Life and Transformers: Dark of the Moon the same movie?
No, they’re not.
That said, in addition to being two of the most talked-about and contentious movies of the summer, I honestly do believe that the newest movies from auteurs Terrence Malick and Michael Bay share a startling amount of ideas, themes, and trajectories. Note that, yes, I used the word “auteur” for the oft-maligned Bay, director of such cinematic monstrosities as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and Bad Boys 2 (like you need me to tell you). The fact that so many of us can agree that a filmmaker’s intentions are mangled and impure, but can agree that the same filmmaker has a singular signature style is a sure sign of the fallibility in the movie nerd’s worship of the Cahier du cinema “auteur theory”. Pure or impure, Michael Bay is saying something with his film grammar, his decisions, the scripts he chooses to shoot, and his editing; after all, he’s one of the few studio filmmakers that have “final cut” sovereignty over his movies.
So, I don’t think this is a ludicrous conversation to have- to compare and contrast arguably the most singular works from two singular auteurs. After reading a fantastic article from Daniel Kasman at MUBI, I was struck by the unifying theme between these two movies: Macrocosmic scale presented on par with microcosmic struggle, the universal in the specific. Malick’s The Tree of Life looks at the creation of the universe as a child’s buried memory, holding the same dramatic weight as a recollected pair of bored brothers making faces through a smudged window. Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon aligns a frustrated post-college job hunt with the conquest of Earth by a malevolent alien race. Admittedly, Malick handles his chosen dichotomy with more fragility and specific grammar, using editing as his main juxtaposition tool. Bay, however, literally frames these moments in similar ways, utilizing loaded low-angle shots, wide lenses, and harshly contrasting colors.
Let’s zoom into each movie’s narrative “canvases”. Malick’s film sees three main perspectives: The Remembering, the ruminations of the adult Jack (Sean Penn); The Personal Memory, Jack’s childhood (the incredible Hunter McCracken), and the Deep Memory, the childhood of planet Earth. Bay’s perspectives are two-fold: The social and professional challenges of unlikely and often unpopular hero Sam Witwicky, and the interplanetary war between Optimus Prime’s Autobots and Megatron’s Decepticons. Some criticisms have been leveled against Malick for not connecting his three canvases directly enough. In fact, many of the connections within Tree of Life – as well as the connections between it and Dark of the Moon – are spiritual, and even ethereal. The contrast of macro- and microcosms in Dark of the Moon are much more directly presented, as they eventually overlap, with Sam attempting to overcome his personal shortcomings by asserting his place in the Autobots’ battle against their enemies. A difference in the two movies’ theorems is this: The Tree of Life does not seem to make a qualitative statement, whereas Dark of the Moon does. In Michael Bay’s movie, as noted in the Kasman article, the message is clear: Your problems with disrespect, lack of material possessions, and emasculation are of equal importance to our problem with the conquest of the planet. Malick’s film does not seem to attempt any statement of importance, rather choosing to present a seemingly disparate set of events, woven together by one character’s memory and a cinematographic dream tapestry.
This leads us to the stunning technical achievements in both films. I challenge you to point out a more gorgeous, and yet contrasting, set of images than what you might find in a random reel compiled from these movies. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki wallow in the beauty of naturalism: soft, white sunlight provides most of the source light in The Tree of Life. Bay’s lighting is much more overtly expressive, coming from a range of possibly non-diagetic sources, but communicating a sense of scale and grandeur typically reserved for Meat Loaf album covers. I’m not trying to be reductive there- Michael Bay, as hard as it is to admit, has a fantastic eye for pop imagery, when his editor’s trigger finger allows him to linger. With this film, his editing style does breathe. The same goes for Terrence Malick, the king of the justified jump cut. Both directors heavily rely on sound, music and framing to evade traditional editing techniques steeped in rules like cutting on action or 30° shot-reverse shot cuts. In Malick’s film, atmosphere and narration combine to give these disparate images a dream-like quality, whereas Bay’s usage of pulsing, external sound effects remind one of a movie trailer, which – to be honest – accurately reflects the perspectives of these characters. From the beginning of each of these films, we are firmly planted in their respective narrative universes. Malick opens his film with a spiritual question, and quickly takes us into an ethereal memory. Bay opens Dark of the Moon with bombast and revisionist history, setting the tone for the pure fiction we are in store for. I suppose that is another difference between the two films: Malick seems to be on a quest to present us with a commonly ignored truth he believes us all to inherently share. In Bay’s movie, there is no truth except for what you see. Reality ends before the Paramount logo comes up, and does not return until this story ends. Introspection is pitted against attention; in a way, very similar to how Jack’s struggle contrasts Sam’s struggle.
One final thought on the link between these two movies. There is a marked sense of America being a fulcrum point in both works and, more disturbingly, there also seem to be shared apocalyptic echoes. It’s hard to ascertain the direct narrative consequences of Tree of Life‘s ending, but I think it could be said that the movie takes us from Earth’s beginning to its end, with 1950’s America – at its powerful apex – at the core of the story. Transformers: Dark of the Moon starts with the genesis of modern America, after the Fall: the 60’s. Both films rely on the Space Race as a sort of reference point, and again, their apocalyptic nature is hard to ignore. Dark of the Moon seems to make a direct and sad nod to the end of the NASA shuttle program. The Tree of Life seems to amplify a selfless, idyllic way of life that that gets forgotten amidst the professional willpower that has been so closely linked to our nation’s spirit, whereas Dark of the Moon asksus to grasp and employ that same spirit.
In Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, we must choose between grace and nature. Either we appreciate what we’ve been given or we take what we lack. Above all, we’re destined to ask God questions about both. In Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, we live in spite of the invasive gods’ wars. We are entitled to a life of saturation and indulgence. Here, the hierarchy of power is reversed, as we’re destined to have our dreams sanctified and served to us by the gods.