The film begins with a quotation from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?… When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38.4, 7). Afterwards, a mysterious, flame-like light flickers in the darkness.
Mrs. O’Brien recalls a lesson that people must choose to follow either the path of grace or the path of nature. Around the 1960s, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien are separately informed of the death of their son, R.L., aged nineteen. The family is thrown into turmoil.
In the present day, the O’Briens’ eldest son, Jack, is adrift in his modern life as an architect. One day he apologizes to his father on the phone for something he said about R.L.’s death. In his office, Jack begins reflecting.
From the darkness the universe is born, the Milky Way and then the solar system form. On the newly formed Earth, volcanoes erupt and microbes begin to form and replicate. Sea life is born, then plants on land, then dinosaurs. In a symbolic first act of compassion, a dinosaur chooses not to kill another dinosaur that is injured and lying on the side of a river bed. An asteroid strikes the Earth.
In a suburban neighborhood in the American South live the O’Briens. The young couple is enthralled by their new baby Jack and, later, his two brothers. When Jack reaches adolescence, he is faced with the conflict of accepting the way of grace or nature, as embodied by each of his parents. Mrs. O’Brien is gentle, nurturing, and authoritative, presenting the world to her children as a place of wonder.
Mr. O’Brien is strict and authoritarian, and easily loses his temper as he struggles to reconcile his love for his sons with wanting to prepare them for a world he sees as corrupt and exploitative. He laments his decision to work in a power plant instead of pursuing his passion for music, and tries to get ahead by filing patents for various inventions.
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