Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey
Directed by: Terrence Malick.
Written by: Terrence Malick.
Narrated by: Cate Blanchett.
Please Note: I saw this film at TIFF in September – and I saw the feature length (90 minutes) version of the film NOT the IMAX version which is opening today. I want to see that version as well, but figured there was no point in NOT posting my review of the version I saw since the film is going to be seen. I do not know when/if this feature length version will be released.
Is there a more divisive director among cinephiles right now than Terrence Malick? When he returned to filmmaking in 1998 with The Thin Red Line – after a 20 year absence – his return was celebrated and heralded, in part because The Thin Red Line is a masterpiece. He only took seven years off before making The New World (2005), and again, the reviews were overwhelming great. Six years later, there was The Tree of Life (2011) – his boldest film to date, a brilliant combination of the epic and the intimate – the history of the world, and the history of one family at the same time. While all of these films had their detractors, they were in the minority. But the ranks of detractors seems to be growing now with each new Malick film – and Malick is working quicker than ever. To the Wonder (2012) was a visual wonder, but narratively it was weaker than what he had done before. Knight of Cups (2016), was, again, visually wonderful, but perhaps even weaker as a narrative (I would argue more diffuse, and repetitive than To the Wonder – not worse, as I like Knight of Cups more). Both of those films, even to those of us who liked them (and I liked both, without loving either) seemed like extensions of The Tree of Life rather than distinct films on their own right. Malick had become increasing disinterested in things such as narrative and character – and concentrated on the poetic – both in terms on his imagery, and the voiceover narration – something that has always been a hallmark of his films, but he’s relied on more and more, while making those voiceovers more and more enigmatic in each film. It was probably only a matter of time before Malick made a film like Voyage of Time – a film that forgoes narrative and character altogether, in favor of his love for beautiful imagery – drawing the history of the world together in one 90 minute block. There is also a 45 minute version of this film (which I have not seen as of this writing) – done for IMAX theaters, and the basic word is that film is better, in part because its more straight forward and easily to understand (because Brad Pitt’s narration explains it). In this 90 minute version however, Cate Blanchatt’s narration barely explains a thing – in fact, it could best be described as nearly self-parody on Malick’s part that instead of explaining things, confuses them. I should say here that I don’t necessary see that as a bad thing.
Voyage of Time is like the dawn of the universe sequence in The Tree of Life, exploded for 25 minutes into 90, adding more narration about “Mother” (some concept of New Age, hippie Christian god I suppose), intercut with some scenes of modern day, who like in all of Malick’s films, struggle with their place in history – and in relation to nature. I think, in all honesty, it’s probably best to ignore much of those sequences – and even Blanchatt’s narration – which can be calming and hypnotic in its own right, especially if you focus on the sound of her voice, and not necessarily what she is saying. In terms of eye-popping visuals, Voyage of Time has more than any other film you will see this year – and that’s true even if, or perhaps especially when, you don’t really know what you are looking at.
The film is a visual wonder, as it recreates the creation of the world, eventual evolution – all the way until the Dawn of Man. Honestly, I think the film could have done with less Dawn of Man stuff – that segment of the movie, featuring actors in bad makeup, is almost goofy and unintentionally funny. And yet, almost everything until then is among the most beautiful visuals you will see in a movie theater. Some of it is standard, if gorgeous, nature photography – Malick spends a lot of time underwater, with magnificent sea creatures, but also shows erupting volcanoes, underwater lava, and the swirling cosmos through the film. If you come away from this film not being blown away by the visuals, I’m not sure what you were watching.
I think it’s easy to dismiss a film like this as New Age claptrap – and honestly, if I took the narration read by Blanchatt more seriously, perhaps I would. I would even venture that perhaps all the critics who have seen both versions of the film – and prefer the shorter, IMAX one may in fact be right – no matter how beautiful this film is, it undeniably also drags at times as well. Yet, I have to say that I’m glad a film like Voyage of Time exists – and that a director like Malick keeps pushing himself further into the non-narrative realm. After all, who the hell else is doing what Malick is doing? Ultimately, I do believe that Voyage of Time may be Malick’s least interesting film – I’m eager to see the IMAX version, but not necessarily rewatch this version any time too soon. Yet all those quibbles aside, Voyage of Time still remains a must-see film, by one of the most unique filmmakers of our time.