After witnessing cosmic explosions and other extraordinary images of the universe, moviegoers who came out to see The Tree of Life were probably not in total shock when two dinosaurs emerged on the screen. But, after finishing the movie and trying to grasp what just went on for the last two and a half hours, a new question emerges- why on earth were there dinosaurs in this movie?
Many people call to mind Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when discussing The Tree of Life for the similarities in their extravagant cinematography and little dialogue. Believe it or not, the special effects production for both films was done by the same man- Douglas Trumbull. However another similarity often gets overlooked in their comparisons. While these films both take place in human environments, The Tree of Life in 1950s Texas and 2001 simply set in the future, they both incorporate scenes in which humans do not exist. In the beginning of Kubrick's film, he devotes an entire sequence to apes before ever arriving in space, simply titled “The Dawn of Man.”
The Dawn of Man is almost a small movie in itself. It centers on a group of apes in prehistory. They lay in the barren desert stricken with hunger when suddenly a large monolith appears and they go berserk, howling with both fear and fascination. But what pertains to The Tree of Life lies in the frames that follow. (This section can be seen in the video link below.) The camera fades in onto a group of apes desperately searching for a meal when one of the apes comes across the skeleton of a boar. He sits there and remains motionless when all of the sudden the music begins to play- he has struck an idea. The ape picks up one of the bones and begins to pound on the skeleton, at first it’s a slow, methodical tapping, like the beating of a drum, but this quickly evolves into a ruthless and savage obliteration of the skeleton. From here on, Ape can now wield the weapon- evolution. (The Dawn of Man).
In Tree of Life, Malick does not toy with the realities of evolution, or ponder with the hypothesis that man has in fact evolved from dinosaurs. No, the dinosaurs in his film serve a different purpose. About twenty minutes into the film, where at this point the audience’s eyes have finally adjusted to witnessing the creation of the world all while being in 1950s Waco, the screen goes black. From here, the camera fades in on a small creek amidst lush rolling hills of green; we realize that we are no longer in Waco, Texas. Lying in the creek there is a small dinosaur that appears to fatally injured. At this point, a large velociraptor-like dinosaur emerges and trots over to the wounded creature placing its foot on the neck of the small dinosaur ready to kill it. But no killing follows. The bigger dinosaur takes its foot off of its neck, gives it two gentle pats and simply walks away.
So all in all, what purpose do the dinosaurs serve? Why couldn’t this scene have remained in Texas and substituted the dinosaurs with wild dogs? Why was it there at all? The choice of dinosaurs must have been done to connect the images of creation with those of the 1950s Texas setting. If one was to try and explain a synopsis of the film, it would most likely revolve around Jack’s youthful experiences, growing up through the decisions he faced. But as the movie goes back and forth between creation and Texas and back, the dinosaurs serve as a connection between human life and the very beginnings of universal existence. Choice, as instructed at the beginning of the film by either nature or by grace, is nothing new, proved to us by dinosaurs. Its decision to kill or not is not all that different that Jack’s decisions to sneak into a stranger’s house or shoot his brother’s finger with a BB gun. While the movie portrays the development of the universe and the earth, it does the same for the development of choice and free will. But, what the movie brings forth here is the wholeness of compassion. When the larger dinosaur lifts its foot off the other one’s throat and gently pats it on the head, there is a connection to a later scene in which Jack gently holds his brother’s finger after he has shot it with the BB gun. Millions of years later in Waco, Texas, the scenario is almost the same. However, while humans have developed into much more complex beings of thought, compassion is an age old virtue that lies within us all, innately. Just as Kubrick uses apes to show the purposeful evolution of the human mind, Malick’s dinosaurs do the same, but for the human heart.
Yes both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life probably could have managed without monkeys and dinosaurs, but it is these images that allow the director’s creativity and unique approach to narrative structure to take full effect. On another note, it is these images that are most remembered, discussed and even argued over, thus allowing the films not to be forgotten.
2001: A Space Odyssey (The Dawn of Man) cut-