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Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience might be the most narrative film of Terrence Malick’s career. The enigmatic director’s recent work has been marked by a turn toward elliptical, stream-of-consciousness meditations, pretty much discarding any semblance of conventional storytelling. But going as far back as Badlands (1973), he’s had a complicated relationship with things like plot and character development — often opting for dreamy cutaways to the natural world when other filmmakers would tighten focus and build suspense. Some have complained that Malick cares more for trees and leaves and birds than he does for people. So it is simultaneously perverse and totally appropriate that this forty-minute IMAX nature documentary, narrated by Brad Pitt, would find Malick in the guise of storyteller.
That’s not to say that he’s stopped being a poet. Malick opens with onscreen text addressed to a child, announcing that the film will trace the origins of life, reveal the birth of the stars, and demonstrate that we all “belong to the same story.” Images of a young girl wandering through an empty lot and a verdant lawn, gazing around in curiosity, quickly give way to almost abstract patterns moving in the darkness, meant to represent the beginnings of the universe — amorphous, ever-changing shapes, slowly gathering in size and luminescence.
Malick worked with natural historian and NASA consultant Andrew Knoll and visual-effects designer Dan Glass to imagine what the earliest forms of matter and space might have looked like. What they’ve conjured is endlessly fascinating and varied: We might see something that resembles the inside of a crystal, only to cut to what looks like a bubble suspended in flame. You could get high before you see the movie, but what’s the point? You can also get high just from watching it.
Voyage of Time could be seen as a companion to Malick’s 2011 masterpiece, The Tree of Life, which framed the autobiographical tale of a Texas family in the 1950s and ’60s with the beginnings of the cosmos, the emergence of life on Earth, and the eventual consumption of our planet by the sun. To make things even more confusing, a ninety-minute version of Voyage also did the festival rounds last month. That one, subtitled Life’s Journey and narrated by Cate Blanchett, is an altogether more searching, lyrical affair — more “Malickian,” in other words — and has yet to find a release date. I don’t think either cut of Voyage uses any actual footage from Tree of Life, though some moments suggest the earlier film. This new, shorter work — the IMAX version, likely intended for both cinematic and institutional settings — is tighter, more focused. Its scope is cosmic, but its ambitions are curiously modest.
Pitt’s narration embodies that tension between the metaphysical and the educational, between wonderment and authority. One minute he’ll tell us that centuries of rainfall helped cool the surface of our blazing planet — as we see exploding volcanoes and streams of lava hardening into globular forms — before asking, quietly, “When did dust become life?” This questioning quality is reflected in the varied nature of the images. Malick’s great feel for metaphor serves him well. He represents the various stages of life through the specific examples he and his team have created and captured, but there’s always a sense that he’s leaving the door open to alternatives — as if he’s saying, “It might have looked like this, or it might have looked like something else.” Voyage of Time is authoritative, but never insistent. As always with this director, there’s an overarching humility to his visions.
And so the movie hurtles forward in time — whispered and hesitant, sure, but also precise and swift — as it leaps millennia and Earth-ages. After the Earth cools, bacteria begin to form communities in shallow pools and lagoons. Schools of jellyfish undulate through silent seas, their bodies opening and closing with hypnotic grace. Huge cuttlefish slowly drift along the deep, bumping against rocks, their giant eyes peering out at us. A vampire squid hovers in the current like some kind of prehistoric ghost or priest. (A spiritual dimension is only hinted at but ever present.) The migration of life from sea to land is represented by what appear to be black millipedes squirming around a tide pool. Dinosaurs make a cameo — even shorter than their appearance in The Tree of Life — and are wiped out by an asteroid. The camera wanders over a dead land — “Earth is covered in a pall of dust,” Pitt tells us — and then suddenly we see monkeys playfully hopping in trees and giraffes peacefully padding around a stretch of grass.
All throughout, the images and the narration circle around the themes of destruction and creation. Ever since The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick has quietly obsessed over this “war in the heart of nature,” the idea that death and violence live in eternal, elemental codependence with love and cooperation. It shapes Voyage of Time. Cells consume other cells; majestic schools of fish practically explode as they’re ravaged by small armies of diving birds. We cut from the eyes of a dying whale to the first human hands as they chase after a bug.
The idea gains even more resonance as Malick follows these first Homo sapiens in a quick succession of cuts. An early man sees his reflection in a pool of water, after which we catch glimpses of a violent confrontation, followed by a lifeless figure who lies beside a dead tree. Someone wanders into the desert as if headed into exile. Then we see a mother and child wearing animal skins, a settlement built into the face of a cliff — and suddenly, a modern city agleam with light as the camera glides over the top of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
There we have it: From an insect caught in a patch of prehistoric dirt to the tallest tower of our world — the tale of humanity, of conflict and civilization, expertly crammed into a few brief shots. It’s merely one enthralling part of this inspiring cinematic journey — full of overwhelming beauty, and ready to set the curious viewer’s mind aflame.
Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Opens October 7, AMC Loews 34th Street 14