Terrence Malick became a critics' darling, a hot young director to watch, with his first two features, "Badlands" (1973) and "Days of Heaven" (1978). Then he disappeared for 20 years.
By the time he returned with "The Thin Red Line," he had become, not surprisingly, a cinema legend.
His 2011 "Tree of Life" was the best of four "recent" (i.e., within the last 15 years) efforts. A slightly disguised memoir of his youth, that film was almost a memory-driven time machine, making suburban Texas in the '50s so real, so tangible, that the viewer had the remarkable sensation of being there.
His new "To the Wonder" is stylistically so similar that some Malick fans might think of it as "Tree of Life 2"; sadly, it struck me as more like "Undernourished Sapling of Life" — a pale shadow of its predecessor. Malick's evocative visual style is not enough to carry us past the very slender — almost non-existent — story. I loved "Tree of Life," despite the voiceover of whispered prayers and religious questions, which fell just shy of being irritating. An almost identical voiceover here doesn't fall shy; no, it reaches, then far surpasses, mere irritation.
And of course this one doesn't have dinosaurs or exploding stars.
The central line running through "Tree of Life" was something like, "Dad could be scary, but now I realize the frustrations that fueled his anger, and Mom pulled us through by sheer grace, and I'm still working all that stuff out. Oh, and what is life all about, anyway?" In "To the Wonder," it's more like "I think I love my wife but maybe not and she's kinda crazy, and I like someone else but fatherhood would be cool. Oh, yes: and what is life all about, anyway?"
The story simply meanders as Neil (Ben Affleck) meets beautiful foreign single mom Marina (Olga Kurylenko), brings her and the kid back to the U.S., more or less drives them away and back to Europe, except they come back, and what ever happened to that other hot number (Rachel McAdams) Neil was consorting with in the meantime?
We really don't much care. Neil is a cipher, utterly opaque. This may partly be the fault of Affleck — he simply is not as powerful or skilled an actor as Brad Pitt — but it's more the fault of Malick's relation to his issues and the film's resultant muddled construction. It took him decades to come around to the realizations and attitudes in "Tree of Life"; perhaps 20 years from now, he'll have gotten a handle on his more recent history.
By one of those odd coincidences of distribution, Kurylenko also stars in this week's big science fiction actioner, the Tom Cruise vehicle "Oblivion." It would be a cheap shot to say that oblivion is where this misshapen epic is heading, so let's pretend I didn't write this sentence, OK?
It's 2077, and a war with invading aliens has left Earth uninhabitable. The remaining humans are building a colony on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, and Jack (Cruise) is part of a cleanup team — along with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, also in the current "Disconnect") — maintaining the huge Earth-based generators — or something — and wiping out the Scavs, subhuman surface-dwellers. Then Julia (Kurylenko) seems to appear from Jack's dreams, and things get more and more baffling. To me, at least.
The semifinal big sequence intercuts current time — I think — with Cruise visually remembering a previous mission — I think — as he listens to the flight recorder. And then the dead walk again — I think.
Maybe I fried my brain sitting too close to the IMAX screen.
As directed by Joseph Kosinski ("Tron: Legacy"), "Oblivion" has one outstanding element — the cool mechanical designs of Jack's home base, his ship and his motorcycle. That, needless to say, is not enough.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).