Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience
Directed by Terrence Malick
Opens October 7
Wonders truly never cease: Anno Domini 2016 will go down as the first year in history that not one but two movies by the once-dormant Terrence Malick saw commercial release, the glum LA story Knight of Cups preparing the ground for the grandiose nature doc Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, another decidedly minor work, but one that’s nonetheless a lot easier to embrace. Packing the whole history of the universe into a compact 45 minutes, the oversize children’s book of a movie feels refreshingly straightforward, a sort of linear streamlining of the pageant-of-creation passages from 2011’s Tree of Life. In effect, Malick takes a stab at visualizing—through a succession of exotic landscapes, petri-dish practical effects, and creaturely CGI—the most seemingly abstract celestial and earthly events, all in awe of the fact that humankind can claim its origins in stardust.
“How was it made, the good you love?” intones Brad Pitt toward the beginning of Voyage, the narrator being our paternal guide to this moving-picture slide show. The voiceover may go heavy on the airy meditation (true to form for Malick), but the science here also happens to be legit, if the credits’ lengthy roster of consultants, led by Harvard natural historian Andrew Knoll, is any indication. That’s not to say that the hard facts ever get in the way of a good image—for one thing, we hardly ever learn any details of what we’re looking at anyway. If the renderings of lava-lamp nebulae and shadow-casting planets occasionally give off a generic screensaver vibe, the earthbound footage (shot by wildlife-doc veteran and recent Malick second-unit cinematographer Paul Atkins) is the real spectacle: A slow flyover up the curved spine of a mountain range captures the landform in all its rippling glory; a close-up isolates a blown-glass ball of magma popping, cooling, and hardening on the perimeter of a volcanic field; a weirdly moving POV shot lets viewers inhabit the gaze of a dinosaur as it pauses, on a beach, to observe the lapping waves.
Just as life began on this jewel called earth, so too will it end, a fact that Malick acknowledges but nonetheless doesn’t seem interested in dwelling on. As the film hurtles, ever so briefly, into the speculative future, the images lose some of their lustrous solidity: A handful of vaguely combustive cosmic events succeed an image of what appears to be an ashen Earth, its Romantic ruins lying open under the vault of space, the crescents of multiple moons hovering on the horizon. In this day and age, it’s strange to see a secular creation story that doesn’t explicitly wring its hands about a human habitat that’s overpopulated, overdeveloped, and, most important of all, overheated. Voyage of Time, though, constitutes something more quietly audacious than a call to action. First and foremost, it sets out to model an ethic of wonder, reminding viewers that the miracle of matter is all that matters, even in a world where the majority of interactions and transactions take place in a virtual realm. The whole endeavor might be almost staggeringly quixotic, its master narrative of such vast scope that it can only ever feel partially told. But of course Malick, who has long zigged where other filmmakers might zag, already has another pass in the pipeline. This is but his maiden Voyage: A 90-minute version, subtitled Life’s Journey and featuring celebrity narrator Cate Blanchett, arrives in theaters next year.