Avowed acolytes of Terrence Malick have been practically foaming at the mouth since word got out that the revered filmmaker planned to release a movie capturing the birth of the universe. The idea stems from the most infamous sequence in Malick’s masterpiece, The Tree of Life, which audaciously inserted the Big Bang into the story of young boy growing up in Texas. Oh, and he’s going to release it in IMAX. Detractors argued that Malick has been making nature documentaries for the last decade already, as his narrative features have become more abstract and often appear to be more interested in their elemental shots of earth and sky. But regardless of one’s perceptions and expectations, nothing can truly prepare a viewer for the experience of drifting through the newborn cosmos on a six-story high screen as Bach comes booming out in 12,000 watts of surround sound.
Malick has been tinkering with these magnificent images for decades, experimenting with trick photography and computer-generated imagery. It is incredibly difficult to pick out what shots are digital or organic. That is, until the dinosaur shows up. Although even then it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that Malick has mastered time travel. With cinematographer Paul Atkins, the earth has been traversed to capture everything from grand vistas to tiny streams. Malick’s assured, flowing edit moves the audience from one epoch to the next with care and yet it’s also almost like a magician pulling his hand away before you can see the method to the trick. We never linger long in one place.
The aforementioned skeptics may be assuaged by the fact that there is a very clear narrative to Voyage of Time. With the guidance of a cadre of scientists, Malick does in fact chart the progression of the universe and the evolution of life. This is the overarching focus of the film but little stories pop up as well. A band of early humans hunt and fight for survival. A lonesome dinosaur looks out upon the ocean. In this section Malick goes so far as to employ a shot from the dinosaur’s point of view as it walks along the beach. Then an asteroid hits and the world is reset.
Deploying a narrative conceit of a young girl playing in a field and contemplating the rocks and leaves around her, the film shields itself from criticism about the earnest voiceover narration, supplied here by Brad Pitt. (A longer 90-minute cut swaps in Cate Blanchett.) Focusing the perspective on a child allows Malick to ask both the inane and unanswerable. He, like the young girl, is full of wonder. The opposite of that is cynicism. Voyage of Time is a resoundingly hopeful film made by one of our most sincere filmmakers. It is a reverent ode to life.