With artists as gifted and accomplished as director Terrence Malick, it’s usually best to presume they know what they’re doing, and that each new work is worth spending a lot of time unpacking—even when that seems more like drudgery than entertainment. But Malick hasn’t made it easy to give him the benefit of the doubt over the past decade or so. Put plainly, the man has a narration addiction. The colorful, curiously poetic voice-overs of Malick’s ’70s masterpieces Badlands and Days Of Heaven took a turn toward the abstract and elliptical with his 1998 comeback film The Thin Red Line, and since then he’s kept pushing further in that direction, marrying sumptuous images and a yearning tone to words that are either off-topic or distractingly banal. Sometimes—as with The Tree Of Life and The New World—the results are still powerful. At other times, longtime fans wonder why he keeps sabotaging himself.
So the good news about Malick’s long-gestating IMAX project Voyage Of Time is that it doesn’t feel like a modern art exhibit being constantly interrupted by somebody reading softly off of Hallmark cards. Voyage Of Time: The IMAX Experience attempts to tell the entire story of the universe, the Earth, and humankind in just 45 minutes, using breathtaking nature photography and state-of-the-art special effects to illustrate the dawn of creation and the evolution of life. Brad Pitt narrates, and after a pretentious opening where the actor literally addresses the audience as though he were reading a letter to young children, the spoken text settles into something relatively straightforward. While Pitt rarely directly describes exactly what we’re seeing, his words are at least in the general realm of a documentary narrator, making comments along the lines of, “Life begins…” as Malick shows writhing undersea organisms.
There’s a 90-minute version of Voyage Of Time (subtitled Life’s Journey) that’ll be available in the United States later, and which features Cate Blanchett narrating in the more frustrating Malick style of flowery language and fervent prayer. The longer version also adds questionable home-movie-quality footage of modern human squalor, and—as compensation for its irritants—extended wordless sequences that are as mesmerizingly strange and stirring as anything the filmmaker has ever created. The IMAX Experience is more like the “greatest hits” edition of Life’s Journey, taking some of the most memorable images and stringing them together in a way that’ll be palatable to middle school science teachers taking field trips to local museums.
That’s just fine, because what Malick has created here is, on balance, a marvel, and one that deserves to be widely seen. Developed off and on over the past 40 years—with work begun in earnest in the 2000s, around the time The Tree Of Life was in production—Voyage Of Time means to show us our surroundings in ways we’ve never experienced them before, by taking us back to how it all began. Malick and his globetrotting team of technicians use active volcanoes and bizarre scenes of oceanic life to recreate the formation of the Earth and the development of consciousness. They also seamlessly integrate CGI to show the wonders of outer space and the fearsomeness of prehistoric animals. At times it’s hard to know exactly what’s happening on the screen, and whether it’s real or digital. At its best, Voyage Of Time instills a genuine sense of awe—halfway between “How’d they do that?” and “What does it all mean, man?”
And yes, sometimes Pitt’s earnest words and Malick’s dreamy pictures clash, creating that familiar effect from To The Wonder and Knight Of Cups of a master filmmaker unable to escape his own thick pool of sap. But with only 40 minutes to play with, the eye-rolling moments pass by quickly. What lingers afterword is the ample evidence of Malick’s unique vision. Shot after shot is artful enough to hang in a gallery: the planet cloaked in ethereal mist; the steam rising off a surf-battered cliff; the distant glimpse of what appear to be dinosaurs flying over tall trees; the seabirds diving into the water to eat from a swirling mass of fish; the first land creatures flopping onto shore; and so on.
Malick seems to see everything on a cosmic and microscopic scale simultaneously. Drop him in the middle of a suburb and he’ll consider the magnificence of the children playing, the beauty of the grass, and the centuries it took for the rocks to form. That’s why it’s always going to be a rare gift to look at the world through his eyes—especially when he lets the images speak for themselves.