‘Tree of Life’ Proposes a New Take On the Summer Movie

The summer blockbuster season is officially upon us, kicking off this weekend with a lineup of typical popcorn-fueled crowd-pleasers: The Hangover Part II, Kung Fu Panda 2, and…  The Tree of Life.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, doesn’t sound like the usual summer movie fodder — and it doesn’t look like it, either, even though it’s got dinosaurs. But the timing of its release is central to Tree‘s marketing strategy, part of distributor Fox Searchlight’s effort to position it as “a different kind of summer event.”

In some ways, the movie — starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain — generates its own publicity. For years there have been whispers about a “mysterious Malick project”; the film almost debuted at Cannes in 2010, until the very last minute when the enigmatic director-writer pulled out, claiming it wasn’t ready.

When Tree finally did make its appearance at this year’s festival, Malick continued to feed the publicity machine, creating additional mystique (and annoyance), by not showing up for its screenings and media Q&A panels.

Of his absence, a longtime producer explained Malick “believe[s] that his work speaks for itself.”

In fact, The Tree of Life doesn’t speak for itself — not often, at least. It’s more of a series of nonlinear, wordless visions that question the meaning of faith, family, and life (and not at all in a Monty Python way).

The first trailer, which debuted in December ahead of Black Swan, focuses on the film’s dreamlike imagery, positioning it as a conversation piece and a movie “for thoughtful people, people who like a little philosophy with their movies,” says Fox Searchlight co-president Nancy Utley.

Because the 138-minute picture raises so many metaphysical questions (not the least of which: “why is this movie so damn long?”), this too has been key to its slow-leak marketing strategy: allowing potential moviegoers to explore alternate life paths via a website and Tumblr blog, Two Ways Through Life.

Fox Searchlight has been creative in their outreach efforts, targeting viewers far beyond art-house cinesnobs and amateur theologists. A recent Fox Searchlight tweet, for example, reminded certain moviegoers that “Arclight Hollywood showtimes for Tree of Life include a 4:20 screening daily.”

All that’s pretty compelling. But will it translate into box-office dollars with Bridesmaids playing in the next theater? Even if it doesn’t, Terrence Malick is planning to extend the Tree conversation, with an experimental Imax documentary, Voyage of Time.

Inspired by a main Tree sequence, Voyage was originally envisioned as a companion piece to The Tree of Life. Producers, however, felt two similar Malick films might confuse audiences and “cannibalize” each other, so Voyage was pushed to a later, unspecified date.

According to a “confidential treatment” obtained by the L.A. Times, the documentary — to be narrated by Brad Pitt — will display “the whole of time, from the birth of the universe to its final collapse.” A team of 20-plus experts will “ensure the film is both aesthetically unique and scientifically accurate.”

In addition, Voyage‘s business plan includes testimonial letters from directors Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg, the latter of whom promises the doc will be “a memorable combination of art and science that will inspire as well as educate.”

Because really, who knows from the end of the world better than Spielberg?

Watch Brad Pitt try to explain what The Tree of Life means here.