Intro note: Criterion has done an okay job on giving some of these movies passable covers. The Thin Red Line is the obvious standout and exists in a class of it’s own, Days of Heaven looks like something I would have designed back when I was designing sigs for people on the Nintendo Power forums, and Badlands is ugly so it gets lumped in with the others here.
Also, for most of these I’m legitimately picking the most prolific cover. I am not going out of my way to find bad covers — the fact of the matter is that by and large the covers for Malick’s movies are all terrible.
But why? Malick consistently produces some of the most profoundly beautiful cinema, but the covers echo none of this. There is little allusion to what any of the films contain, rather, some mysterious guiding force seems to think Malick is only marketable by the stars he dots his movies with. But, as seen below, the portrayal of these stars is even disingenuous — they are more often then not placed on the cover as their least offensive self, reflecting none of the grace Malick infuses his movies with.
People who buy these (or any) movies have to be one of two people: Those who actively seek out Malick and those that may just run across him because of their covers and think “Oh I like Brad Pitt!” The latter audience likely puzzled upon a movies play, while Malick is beautiful, if you aren’t ready for his form of discourse it can be tiring and without apparent logic. The former audience likely stomachs the discrepancy of surface tone set by the cover and actual tone of the movie, perhaps even displacing the DVD/Blu-Ray from it’s case (gasp) to sit between a few mix cds you made for a girl who broke up with you before you were able to give them to her. Sandwiched between”Boner Jams ‘97” and “Songs from our favorite cat videos,” Days of Heaven wonders what it did so wrong as to deserve this fate. Don’t worry Days of Heaven, I love you, but the case you previously occupied was the equivalent of that bad attempt restore an italian fresco.
Look at that face, Days of Heaven. You can stomach “Boner Jams ‘97” to avoid that awful fate right?
We’re going to walk through these by release date, so without further adieu…
BOOM. Let that one soak in for a second. I get it, it wants to be like an old movie poster. “Filmed In Technicolor” should also be on here, as well as “please don’t judge this movie based off this terrible watercolor of its main characters by a 10-year-old.” However, this cover at least tries to be something, so for that it gets a 6/10.
DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978)
Warning, from here on they seriously only get worse. This is also the first to start the “disembodied heads of characters from the movie” trend that has persisted ever since, though actors/actresses are awarded more body parts as the years move on. I’m also not sure if this a function of internet encoding over and over, but the fact they literally blew out the highlights on this is laughable, especially considering Malick usually works in the mids. It reminds me of another (highlight) failure of epic proportions:
People care so much about their movies when it comes to production, and even possibly post, but some reason they stop caring once it gets to DVD. “Just give it all to marketing” seems to be the recurring mantra. In fairness, I have no idea how movable or immobile these systems are, but surely they would take some input? Like, “Hey, don’t blow my highlights on the first thing the audience sees when they buy my movie.” It’s like the equivalent of a photographer giving someone a picture and then that person putting a “dope ass filter” on it.
THE THIN RED LINE (1998)
WARNING: INCOMING WAR MOVIE. LOOK AT ALL THESE PEOPLE YOU KNOW. LOOK AT ALL THESE AWARDS. LOOK AT ALL THIS WAR.
LOOK AT THAT RED. RED LIKE BLOOD. SO DARK. RED LIKE FIRE. LIKE FIRE FROM A WAR.
THE NEW WORLD (2005)
This movie wasn’t really that great, so I agree that the cover semi-accurately depicts this movie in it’s 5/10 state, but here we have the recurring Nicholas Sparks Heads so loving introduced to Malick circa Days of Heaven.
Maybe I’m giving Malick too much credit, maybe he actually oversees these covers and loves having Floating Heads Softly Touching Each Other. Malick reportedly told the actress on the set of To The Wonder to “be joy.” His approach to love is definitely spiritual, frequently speaking around it as to almost summon its indescribable power. Two faces close together — this motif actually exists in many (if not all) of Malick’s movies, but carries much more levity in how it’s presented on screen vs. Sparks’ drivel. However, having staked a claim in that land, and even if his execution is much less than Malick’s, Sparks’ “two heads close together” is distinct, and anything that looks like it easily gets lumped into whatever preexisting feelings one attributes to his movies.
THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)
I’m just imagining the person who buys this movie thinking it is going to be some nice Good Ole American Family Movie like On Golden Pond or the recent Kings of Summer.
The Tree of Life definitely harbors some moments from these as well — it isn’t like Malick lives in a vaccum (though he does live in the non-Austin part of Texas). But I think this cover, as well as the others, represents the inability for people to really explicitly convey what a Malick film is like. You sort of go into a fugue state at times when watching them, especially with this and To The Wonder, so how does one even convey that in a static image? I think it’s indicative of the medium itself — movies are complex beasts, unable to be conveyed in their totality with a single frame (or shitty Photoshop composition). But it seems like, with Malick, the answer to this is “Why even try, just put famous people on there.”
TO THE WONDER (2012)
This is the one that kind of started this piece. I follow Magnolia on Facebook and when they first posted this I thought they were kidding. The same complaints here as the issues I take with The New World and Days of Heaven. The recurring Heads Close Together Softly Touching makes an appearance, though Olga Kurylenko, the most “beautiful presence” in the film (as Malick’s characters exist as suggestions, not actual people), gets a strangely diabolical face.
What this cover tells me:
“To The Wonder, the latest Nicholas Sparks’ adaptation coming to you from an unknown director who previously worked on Gossip Girl, tells the story of love gone awry. Ben Affleck plays the man haunted by his past, his new girlfriend Rachel McAdams trying to reconcile this hidden mystery with her newfound love. Olga Kurylenko plays the relic Affleck wishes would stay in the past. Will Olga reveal to Rachel what haunts Ben? Will Rachel still be able to love the man she recently fell in love with? Find out in Terrence Malick, master of love triangles’, newest romantic drama To The Wonder.”
The total generic-ness of Malick’s stock covers is profoundly saddening. I worry that people would be either never turned on to his mostly incredible filmography, or turned off to it after seeing these horrible representations of his work. Luckily, there have been some good covers, so I’ll end with those as a detox from the previous gauntlet I just pulled you through.
This one at least does justice to the incredible scope of The Tree of Life, and echoes the beautiful poster used during its promotional campaign.
I think this is the best cover of all his films. It speaks in suggestions without being too on the nose. Kudos to the designer Neil Kellerhouse, who has an incredible portfolio, including the design of the Seven Samurai and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo covers. This is what we need more of, and it shouldn’t take Criterion to do it every time. Most of the above just feels disingenuous, faithful to neither fans nor potential buyers. We’re better than this, proved we can be, so here’s to hoping that whatever cover Knight of Cups or Voyage of Time is awarded looks better than the general awful-ness that is Malick’s cover history, and is spared a place next to the immutable “Boner Jams ‘97.”
"It’s natural to worry that the colossal success of a tightly formatted movie such as the new “Transformers” will only stiffen the resolve of studios to repeat it, or will only solidify the shapes of existing pigeonholes and sideline unusual and distinctive movies even further. Yet such concern reduces to a mere snobbery of taste, a straw-person diversion akin to an opera house blaming low attendance at a production of “Salomé” on a Miley Cyrus concert. The most audacious low-budget American independent filmmaking is threatened much more significantly by misplaced critical praise for art-house mediocrities than by Hollywood."