“Aftertones of Infinity”: Biblical and Darwinian Evocations in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and To the Wonder

  • Author(s): Gregory Allen Robbins
  • When: 2016-01
  • Where: Journal of Religion & Film
  • In this article I argue that in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder Terrence Malick continues to explore, on an epic scale, a theme that permeates the previous four (Badlands, 1973; Days of Heaven, 1978; The Thin Red Line, 1998; The New World, 2005): innocence to experience. I suggest that Malick’s oeuvre reflects a recurring evocation of and commentary on the primeval, biblical stories of Genesis 1-11. The title of his 2011 installment betrays, however, a more encompassing vision. Viewers whose gaze is oriented by biblical studies will associate “the tree of life” with Genesis 2 and Revelation 22. Few will recognize “the tree of life” as the name Charles Darwin gives to the only diagram in his On the Origin of Species (1859). The Tree of Life is a sprawling meditation on both “trees.” To the Wonder continues in the same vein. Malick, I maintain, is reckoning with those forces that seem to be built into the cosmic and societal scheme of things—energies that are at once creative and nurturing, destructive and tragic—and the mythic traditions to which moderns have explanatory recourse. By contrast, To the Wonder is a smaller film. While its title seems to promise something both grandiose and mystical, the film offers only fleeting glimpses of the transcendent, the numinous. Like The Tree of Life, it is consumed with disappointment and loss, with yearning and the desire for return, and, in the end, resonates with the sentiment Joseph Schwanter captures in his poem and his Pulitzer Prize-winning musical setting of it: “Celestial voices echo the lost dreams of the children of the universe/the aftertones of infinity.”

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