As Terrence Malick drifts further into his own world, his films have become easy targets. All that gentle, pensive narration and roaming camerawork less interested in actors than gorgeous scenery has been frequently pigeonholed as a parody of the more lyrical storytelling that put the filmmaker on the map decades ago. Malick received something of a rebirth after 20 dormant years with the acclaim for “The Thin Red Line,” “The New World” and “Tree of Life,” a trio of ambitious narratives that reached for ethereal heights. By those standards, the fairly subdued portraits of lonely characters in the relationship drama “To the Wonder” and Hollywood-set “Knight of Cups” felt like half-formed efforts in search of a bigger picture.
Malick finally has widened the lens with “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey,” an expansive look at the history of all living things, and the operatic expression of spirituality that dominates this visually remarkable effort shows just how little Malick cares to level with his audience. You either embrace his vision or reject it altogether — and so far, many of the people who saw the 90-minute cut of “Voyage of Time” at the Venice and Toronto film festivals have done just that. But it’s not the whole story.
“Voyage of Time” actually comes in two versions: the feature-length version, equipped with a whimsical narration by Cate Blanchett that questions god in vague maternal terms, does not currently have a release date. However, a 45-minute cut, narrated by Brad Pitt in much more straightforward terms, will be released on IMAX screens on October 7. Excising some of the more peculiar digressions and overweening poetic asides, “Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience” foregrounds the incredible collage of awe-inspiring effects that recreate the birth of the universe, life on Earth, and eventually humankind. It also has a very clear sense of purpose.
“Dear child,” reads an opening scrawl. “Today you’re going to watch a movie that shows the story of the universe. From the birth of stars, to modern cities glowing in the night.” And so “Voyage of Time” proceeds to reveal just that, with a pileup of extraordinary images ranging from glimmering nebulae to sprawling mountain ranges and ancient creatures large and small; sewn together with dramatic classical music cues of Mahler and Beethoven along with Pitt’s occasional context, “Voyage of Time” delivers one of the most spectacular nature documentaries in recent memory. “Planet Earth” devotees should be smitten.
Malick doesn’t delve into every scientific detail of the processes captured in the movie, but “Voyage of Time” excels at capturing their magnificence. While the credits list his wife Alexandra as the “ambassador of good will,” the movie’s real saving grace is the IMAX screen. Effects wizard Dan Glass builds on some of the images glimpsed in “Tree of Life” to provide an immersive overview of expanding gases in the wake of the big bang, the eons of rain that cooled the crust, the death of the dinosaurs in the wake of an asteroid collision and the evolution of human consciousness.
In IMAX, the swirling cosmos, flowing water and explosive clouds take on a greater sensational quality than any spectacle found in your average blockbuster, in part because Pitt’s raspy voiceover gives them a precise meaning. “Why was there something and not nothing?” he wonders as the film begins. In another Malick movie, such pontifications might induce eye rolls, but here the question has a literal answer in the ensuing processes the film reveals.
“Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience” has such precise intentions, in fact, that the lesser 90-minute cut amounts to something of a distraction. While both versions include many of the same astounding visuals, the longer movie includes frequent cutaways to contemporary digital video footage that draws blunt parallels between modern times and early days of life. The IMAX version sets those tangents aside in favor of a more palatable emphasis on natural wonders. Malick regularly cuts away to a young girl in a field, obviously thinking about her surroundings, and one can easily imagine the movie designed for someone like her. The movie unfolds like a letter to someone discovering the mysteries of the universe for the first time and reveling in their beauty.
As Pitt extols the influence of “every atom, every particle blazing,” the ginormous IMAX screen makes it possible to peer into primordial oceans, catastrophic storms, jagged rock formations and neon skyscrapers as if they’re really there in front of you. (Sitting alone in a private IMAX screening, I surprised myself by saying “wow” out loud more than once.) It takes a filmmaker willing to work with reckless abandon to produce a movie designed for a specific theatrical experience. James Cameron did it with “Avatar,” and now comes “Voyage of Time,” which audiences must experience on IMAX to appreciate its virtues.
“The majority of the world, we can’t even see,” Pitt says, and “Voyage of Time” reads like a plea to look closer. Its concise running time makes that lesson go down a lot easier than any attempt to cloud the picture with more convoluted ideas. In other words, it benefits from comparison to the other version, which often buries its splendor in meandering observations. That itself is nothing new. Recent Malick films often express a jumble of transcendent concepts. At 45 minutes, “Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience” crystalizes them. It’s the closest we may ever get to his manifesto.