Neil Bahadur’s review published on Letterboxd:
Basically Sunrise 2, incomprehension of the modern world followed by acceptance of it - but if that film is more precise and certain in following its central conceit to its end point, this film makes up for being unsuccessful at having a through-line in its central idea with its being adventurous visually (but really digitally!) & serious embrace of digital as alternative format to film. And there are great ideas throughout, ideas in great sequences which are probably the best of Malick's entire career, but so often they end up appearing in fits and spurts because the film is two hours long, when it should have been 80-90 minutes. Though I may be coming off as too critical here, the redundancy of certain sequences is only a minor annoyance - the Tower sequence though engaging is completely useless - it is still annoying because of the almost perilous simplicity of this movie, which would be completely one-note thematically had we not thankfully been given the Bandaras/Party & Portman sequences. Even though the returns to the beach tie into the video beach footage in the films opening, a sort of Jungian repose, I have to admit these happen a little too much for me! And the seemingly randomly inserted push-in's into open spaces in landscapes had me almost throwing up my arms in frustration.
Still, at least for this movies first 45 minutes it is absolutely spectacular and probably Malick's best movie. (note: I have not seen To The Wonder yet). For Bale/Rick, the act of simply walking from one room to another is a pilgrimage in itself. The pearl fable is equally metaphor and re-contextualization, first in giving Bale/Rick proportions which are almost mythic, while contextualizing the fable so that one comes to realize that these structures are not antiquated, it is the 'now' which is antiquated. This first culimates in "The Hermit," which feels less a Hollywood party and more orgy of Stroheimian proportions. One of the most interesting bits is this films relationship to Malick's own life and work (TOL & I presume TTW) - the father character feels virtually like a Brad Pitt from TOL grown old, and in these sequences with father and brother I felt I was almost watching a sequel to that prior film! These aspects are where the films is most successful in its early sections and make the iron Metropolis whereupon Bale/Rick wanders almost minscule in comparison.
"No one cares about reality anymore."
Outside from a stunning Las Vegas sojourn, which feels like a digital-age Foolish Wives, what really elevates this movie for me is its sequences with Bale & Natalie Portman, with a museum respite which both clarifies and continues the films ideation. First we see the Metropolis itself literately turned minuscule by showing a model of it - pushing the films city portrayal into full on mode of representation whereupon the simulacrum itself is antiquated by its existence in a museum. This museum sequence is maybe my favorite moment in any Malick movie - where by multiple television screens postmodernism itself is now simulated - not necessarily because it is a part of history, but because modes of representation have thus far become the defining characteristic of the 21st century. Blue plates are stacked up ontop of each other as though people no longer use plates to eat - the contemporary, the 'now' is little more than simulacrum itself! Bale watches a projection of a man counting on his figures, while we see Portman's shadow behind the screen! No wonder there are so many shots of aquariums in this movie. Prior and afterwards, there are moments of Bale wandering around a desert landscape which looks right out of Pasolini's Teorema, and though earlier on I find them a bit irritating, it is this which contextualizes these spaces as mental spaces, 'searching' spaces.
I'm almost ashamed to say that I wish the rest of the movie was this good! Frankly I find it both amusing and a bit boring that with seemingly every film Malick posits new theories and forms but almost always arrives at the same end point, preventing any new discoveries on both the part of viewer and director, and only seems to confirm the directors intentions from prior to the beginning of any sort of inquiry. And honestly, even after discerning the signification of the cuts back to Bale in landscape, it's still incredibly irritating to me even as it goes on after! But anyways, yeah, love, acceptance, children, that's nice. That's a silly thing to complain about I suppose. But he's always pointing somewhere new and uncharted, so it's always disappointing that he arrives back at what is defined. Still, there is something abrupt about the end of this movie, I felt less closure than any work of TM prior. And that feels like the right step.