June 9, 2011

Asgard and Texas: Not that far apart.

I saw Thor on Tuesday night.

I saw The Tree of Life on Wednesday night.

Surprisingly, they're a lot more similar than you'd think. And it's not because they both feature CGI creatures.

I know that Thor is Kenneth Branagh's quick dip into summer blockbusters, and Tree of Life is Terrence Malick's latest flora-adoring, imagery-heavy opus. Doesn't seem to be a lot of room for comparison. But there were more than a few moments in Tree of Life, usually when my mouth wasn't agape in amazement, where I thought, "Hmmm, this is rather Thor-ish, isn't it?"

That's because Tree of Life doesn't aim to make very much sense. I mean, there's a "story," but it's not told in the linear style that most filmmakers use (and most moviegoers expect). It bounces through time and explains itself mostly without words; viewers have to pick up what they can and make suppositions along the way. It's an extreme example of something more movies should strive for: showing and not telling.

But it also means that, half the time, you have no idea what's going on. Why did the little kid put the blouse in the river? Who's the person that just died? Why are we watching the creation of Earth? And, most importantly, it doesn't lend much to character development. Everyone's motivations, besides basic human desires, are either unknown or nonexistent.

And Thor, well, it's a comic-book movie. And it's one set in the Avengers universe, which means its a rush-job that's designed to serve two purposes: make money and move the larger story along.

So naturally, things happen for no reason, and with even less justification. What made Thor's brother so evil so fast? Why doesn't Thor have his powers anymore? Is that the guy who played The Punisher, dressed in a fat suit and eating shanks of meat? There's no time, and no desire, to flesh anything out. As long as you know who's good, who's bad and what got them there, the story's ready to speed along.

To enjoy either one, you're forced to suspend reality. I think the best films do this naturally; you find yourself sucked into the world of the movie, and before long, you become increasingly invested in the plot and its characters. But, by design, Thor and Tree of Life keep you at arm's length.

One's a fantasy, built to rake in big bucks and adapted from 30-year-old drawings designed for children. The other's a semi-autobiographical work of art, created by an eccentric director who loves nature and adores Zoolander. But at the end of the day, it's difficult (if not impossible) for viewers to engage with either.

Thor suffers from the usual big-budget incomprehensibility; Tree of Life, on a personal level, won't give you what you aren't looking to receive. But when they each finished, I walked out stymied, wishing I had been handed just a little more. There are apparently two very different roads to being inexplicable.

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