Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey review – Terrence Malick’s eye-popping history of the universe

Posted by on Sep 8, 2016 in Voice-Over | 0 comments

The arrival of a new Terrence Malick film is always something of an event, even if the great man’s lustre is beginning to wear off under the weight of his gigantic reputation: even the most diehard Malick obsessives would surely admit that the fey, whispery To the Wonder and the self-indulgent Knight of Cups were not really up to scratch. Compared to how he used to, Malick works at a virtual sprint these days, and now his long-awaited documentary Voyage of Time has been unveiled at the Venice film festival.

Intriguingly, for such a control-freak auteur, Voyage of Time is being issued in two different versions, at two different running times: the one Venice is presenting is a 90-minute edit, subtitled Life’s Journey, with a voiceover provided by Cate Blanchett. Also floating around is one half its length, intended for the giant-format Imax cinemas, with Blanchett replaced by Brad Pitt. (According to Malick’s own notes, Pitt’s voiceover is “more awestruck and explanatory”; we’ll just have to wait and see exactly what that means.)

Moreover, slightly more advance information has been available about Voyage of Time than is usual for project from the famously secretive director; partly, at least, because Malick got himself ensnared in some unwelcome litigation after an unhappy backer claimed he “forgot” about it. (The case has now been settled.) Malick’s stated ambition is to describe the “scientific chronology of Earth” – to, in effect, chronicle the development of our universe and planet at macro and micro levels – and, given that the contents of his own mind have increasingly preoccupied Malick’s creative imagination, it is I suppose a logical development for him to produce a film with no actors, and any human input in front of the camera kept to an absolute minimum.

The first point to make is that, for this feature-length version at any rate, anyone expecting a brisk, informative science lesson – along the lines, say, of that rather handy little film that explained how they cloned dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – will be disappointed. Malick has provided a dazzling flow of quite astonishing images, but provided little in the way of context; Blanchett’s voiceover, hardly there in any case, is very much on the incantatory, putatively poetic lines for which the director clearly has a weakness. (In all honesty, if it was stripped out entirely, I doubt it would make a great deal of difference to the film’s impact.)

Everything comes in a heady rush; so much so it’s difficult to process what exactly we are seeing. Vast galactic spaces, filled with churning cosmic matter, give way to pristine earthbound landscapes; great care is taken to focus on the flow and change and transformation of what is being filmed. Malick then swoops even further in, down to microscopic and even subatomic levels: microbes, cells, and smaller particles all float by in their eye-popping glory. What’s particularly remarkable is that there is little difference in the brilliant image quality between the intense, high-definition footage of natural phenomena, and the superbly rendered CGI that has been employed for the sections for which the film-makers must rely on their own imaginations: star collapses, expanding galaxies, and the like.

Without any contextual information, it’s down to the audience to pick up on Malick’s cues as to the sense of the development of geological time: some are more obvious than others, such as the arrival of a giant asteroid shortly after we get a look at a friendly-looking CGI dinosaur (who, for obvious reasons, never reappears). Humans aren’t shut out entirely; in the film’s final third we are invited to watch a group of (suspiciously gym-hardened) early humans, who pass through stages of hunting, clothes-wearing and family life, as well as the apparent development of ritual and spirituality. Malick also intersperses his glorious natural imagery throughout with scrappy bits of lo-fi video footage of contemporary human activity across the globe – largely, but not entirely, in cramped urban spaces. It’s quite a contrast.

In this version, then, Voyage of Time is perhaps best appreciated as an abstract, with its sheer profusion of natural beauty and consequent synchronicities of image. It’s not entirely without precedent – the Koyaanisqatsi films by Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke had something of a similar aesthetic ambition, though with very different ends in mind, and the Eames’ famous short, Powers of Ten, contains a little of the same dizzying sense of scale, though in exquisite miniature. Voyage of Time, in the end, is a perhaps an aesthetic experience rather than an particularly informative one, prizing images over data; but what images they are.

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