Taking viewers from smalltown USA to the farthest reaches of the cosmos by way of A-list stars, hammerhead sharks and CG dinosaurs, The Tree of Life sounds like the perfect stopgap for fans of Superman and Jurassic Park.
But while it’s an imposing symphony for the senses, Malick’s fifth is more like Stand By Me with a PhD in metaphysics.
At its heart is the coming-of-age of young Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest son of a strict Texan disciplinarian (Pitt) and an angelic redhead (Chastain, late of Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus).
We meet Jack as an existentially troubled businessman (played by Penn), mulling over his life and the (unspecified) death of one of his brothers while mooching around a (similarly unspecified) 21st century metropolis... and various other photogenic habitats.
Human angle vaguely established, Malick then embarks on a brief history of evolution from the birth of the universe to the meteor strike that may or may not have wiped out the dinosaurs. Strangely, there the lesson ends.
(Perhaps the low-profile director – Hollywood’s answer to the Scarlet Pimpernel – didn't want to cause trouble for 20th Century Fox by casting doubt on the historical accuracy of the Ice Age movies?)
The bulk of the film, however, deals with Jack’s relationship with his dad. Played with studied seriousness by Pitt, ‘Father’ is a controlling and confusing influence, telling Jack all he wants is for him to grow up to be his own man while allowing him no free will.
Thankfully, there’s always the unconditional love of his mother to see him through the acts of rebellion, curiosity and boredom-driven prankstering that are part of growing up in suburbia.
Light on dialogue, heavy on orchestral pomp and beautifully composed - at times breathtaking - imagery, The Tree of Life is ripe for contemplation and introspection.
But narratively compelling it is not. There’s a line between profound and pretentious, and Malick’s procession of abstracts, metaphors and whispered non sequiturs will leave many viewers out of their (but mainly his) depth.
And whatever point he’s trying to make, he’s in no hurry to make it. Remember the plastic-bag-in-the-wind scene in American Beauty? Imagine it stretched to over two hours.
Yet there’s no denying Malick’s visual poetry. From smoke-filled streets to the surface of the sun, and the near-silent performances of Chastain, Penn and impressive newcomer McCracken, the whole film is testament to the adage that pictures speak a thousand words.
True, it’s the sort of nebulous fare that has critics salivating and average movie-goers approaching it like a plate of cinematic greens.
But how often do you leave the multiplex pondering the universe and your place in it? Consider it a unique workout for your popcorn-bloated brain.