Terrence Malick’s first and, to date, only nonfiction film took an appropriately long and strange journey into existence. Its origins can be traced back to the abandoned film project known as Q, a movie that would have incorporated both a modern-day story and prehistoric segments. The offspring of Q, more than thirty years later, would be known as The Tree of Life (2011), and Voyage of Time (2016) is essentially an expansion of that film’s famous sequence on the creation of the universe. Filming took place on several continents over many years, beginning in 2003 when the documentary cinematographer Paul Atkins got wind of a volcanic eruption in Hawaii. Partially financed by the National Geographic Society and IMAX, Voyage of Time would be an unprecedented hybrid: part (scrupulously accurate) nature documentary, part romantic-philosophical pondering in that increasingly divisive way that Malick has. In order to please those audiences who only wanted the first thing, the film was released in IMAX theaters as a forty-minute sprint through eons narrated by Brad Pitt. I missed my chance to see that version in a theater, and as of this writing, no home video release seems to exist. The longer cut (at 88 minutes) narrated by Cate Blanchett is only a little less unavailable. One must purchase a European Blu-ray or consult the New Zealand iTunes Store. So it was a long, strange journey for me also before I finally caught up with the film last summer via German Blu-ray. Unfortunately, I watched it in German. It was only later that I figured out how to get the Blanchett narration. For that reason, at the very least, I felt a revisit was warranted.
This movie was never going to be anything less than gorgeous. Malick’s determination to use the best available technology, the most tactile special effects, and a filming style that relied on deep-focus, wide-angle photography — pioneered in the director’s collaborations with Emmanuel Lubezki and faithfully replicated by Atkins — ensured a movie in which nearly every shot is eye-popping. That’s the driving philosophy behind the film, as well. Everything can be beautiful, everything is important. The desire to make the audience stop and pay attention likewise extends to sound, from the cries of seagulls to the various noises water can make. The film mostly proceeds chronologically, beginning in darkness with Blanchett’s voice — the “character” she’s playing could be Humanity, or perhaps Wisdom from the Book of Proverbs. She asks questions of “Mother,” which could be Nature, of course, or God. The only answers come in the form of the story of the universe, and of life. What Deems Taylor in Fantasia called the “pageant” of evolution is presented here in suitably awe-struck, baffling fashion. Malick draws poetic connections between nebulae and the irises of eyes and flowers and microscopic activity and ocean life etc. etc. It’s all fairly spellbinding, even if one isn’t aware that Malick consulted scientists to make sure that, for example, the formation of the solar system is depicted in a scientifically accurate way.
Sprinkled throughout the high-definition images of the film are present-day interludes captured by Malick’s assistants with low-quality digital cameras. This mix of majestic visuals by a camera crew with quotidian images by one person standing with a small device has become a common counterpoint for Malick since To the Wonder (2012). These scenes take place all over the world as well, but unlike the high-def imagery, they’re dominated by human activity. I haven’t quite put my finger on what the scenes accomplish. In their depictions of ceremony and protest and work, they’re too diffuse to say any one thing about time’s voyage. Purposefully disruptive (and, at the very least, they may offer the eye a rest in the middle of all that splendor), they don’t stop the movie from feeling remote. Quite the opposite, in fact. The most effective passages of the film lack any human footprint, using volcanic activity and the whims of the sea to put the viewer in mind of Earth’s beginning, even though such things obviously still happen today.
Still, Malick had no intention of making a movie that was merely about geology and the processes of life in general. It had to culminate with human beings and our ceaseless questions of what and how and why. Malick’s answer to the legendary match cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey comes an hour and fourteen minutes into Voyage of Time, when stalks of sun-kissed wheat (yes, wheat) give way to the Dubai skyline at night. The sudden leap from the eight-minute “Early Man” sequence, with its shots of primitive dwellings, to the glass towers and power lines of the current day is as mesmerizing as the climactic journey to England in The New World (2005). With its final movement, the film comes into focus: it’s about our home — the home of the entire human race in all our variety — how it came to be, and where it’s going. These thoughts are nominally fleshed out by Blanchett’s narration. I’d love to be able to defend the verbal component of the film, but Malick voice-overs only work (and not always) when there’s a character behind them. A disembodied voice uttering such innocent queries as “So much joy: why not always?” does indeed approach the self-parodic. Admittedly, the approach is better, in theory, than a dull presentation of facts, but in practice the narration is so vague and airy as to evaporate as soon as I’ve heard it.
The creation sequence in The Tree of Life is just over fifteen minutes long. Voyage of Time manages to replicate some of the amazement of that sequence and, naturally, contributes a lot more detail, but in the end it just feels like more of the same. Everything that was so bold in the earlier film, from the appearance of dinosaurs to the use of classical music, is more muted here, coming across as simply the expected byproduct of a documentary on such a grand subject. In many ways, Voyage of Time feels like a movie caught in the middle: too short to be a true epic, but too long to keep me from fidgeting at its cascading sprawl; too invested in the deep past to provoke an emotional interest, but too keen on interrupting things with human involvement to make the immersion work. These contradictions do keep things interesting, and any given minute of film here is well worth seeing. But in total, it’s somewhat compromised.