Review: Terrence Malick's 'Voyage of Time'

Before IMAX became a way for mainstream theaters to jack up prices for those willing to pay, it was something you'd usually find at a science museum.  The available films shot in the proprietary 70mm format were typically science and nature documentaries.  They have their own somewhat idiosyncratic style, starting from Greg MacGillivray classics like To Fly! and Speed, and picked up by Stephen Low who brought the 3D version of the format to prominence.  Today, the rotating library splits between Wild Kingdom-style animal shows and Toni Meyers' space-based films, like the current A Beautiful Planet.

IMAX documentarians tend to run in their own circles.  There's normally little crossover between them and mainstream or art-house directors.  But when has Terrence Malick ever let "normal" constrain him?  As his forty-year "Q" project evolved, it broke into pieces.  One of them we've already seen: the prehistoric sequence in The Tree of Life that confounded audiences.  The remainder has become Voyage of Time, a documentary to be released in two different versions.  And one of those, which we are getting now, is an IMAX documentary like none we have seen before.

In form, Voyage of Time is similar to other science museum fare.  It runs about 45 minutes, concerns itself with the natural world, and features narration by a bankable movie star -- Brad Pitt, in this case.  But it is unquestionably a Malick film, with long, meditative shots cut together with his characteristic, impressionistic rhythm (courtesy of recent Malick regular Keith Fraase).  Its voiceover is less concerned with documentary exposition than with providing the audience with the seeds of Malick's own contemplations.

The Q project -- possibly named after the hypothetical common Gospel source -- is Malick's attempt as a scientifically-minded Catholic to grapple with the role of the divine in the natural world.  His perspective is clearly far from Creationist, but neither does it approach Spinozist pantheism.  There is, to Malick, a real, personal God who acts subtly in the world, but with a definite direction towards the Good.

In The Tree of Life, he specifically turned his inquiry towards the nature of morality, and echoes of this question bubble up through Voyage of Time.  As single-celled bacteria give way to multicellular organisms, he notes that cooperation has nearly as long a history in the story of life as competition does.  Love, as he puts it, is part and parcel of creation; it's hardly something which distinguishes us from Tennyson's "nature, red in tooth and claw."

But mostly Voyage of Time is concerned with the expression of the divine in the created world, even as we understand it scientifically.  To that end, he sought the input and advice of a who's-who of biologists, paleontologists, cosmologists, and physicists, anchored by Andrew Knoll of Harvard.  As an overview of the history of Earth and life on it, the film is quite up-to-date, though far more poetic than didactic.  Unlike Cosmos, as one example, this is a story meant to be felt about more than thought about.  And to be immersed in it, face to face with a five-story screen, is a wonderful experience.

Rather than foreground the theological basis of his meditations, Malick only hints at it in the points of contemplation the narrator raises.  It's entirely possible to view the film from a completely secular perspective, and to wrestle with the questions on one's own terms.  When an asteroid crashes to earth, causing mass extinctions, it's only human to ask why.  Why was it not just created perfectly from the beginning?  Is there no satisfying recourse but to reject the divine and find ourselves alone and adrift in an indifferent universe?  Or is the wonder of nature a process of becoming, rather than a state of being?

This curiosity about the natural world is ingrained in what it is to be human.  Every child follows their primal instincts to examine the leaves and stones of the world around them, and the cosmic punchline is that the stone, the leaf, and the child are all part of the same story.  There are no dividing lines between humanity and nature except the ones we ignorantly scribble in ourselves.  That one, all-encompassing story is -- whether or not you believe in any form of divinity -- the most wonderful of all.

Rating: 5 out of 5