Starting a good while before the Big Bang and truck-truckin’ along until a good while after the sun burns out, “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey” covers a lot of ground. You’ve got the Big b=Bang, the creation of the universe, the formation of Earth, the evolution of species, the dawn of civilization and wheeeee! fast forward past life’s extinction til the point when time collapses in on itself, and we’re a safe – safe — 30 billion years in here. So if you think letting the complete and total History of Everything That Ever Was And Ever Will Be run its course in only 90 minutes does it a complete and total disservice, you’re entirely right. At its 90-minute runtime, Terrence Malick’s long-in-the-works documentary is too damn long.
That “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey” is too damn is long is hardly its biggest issue, however (though, and this we must reiterate, it’s too damn long). No, there’s a bigger issue at hand for this expertly crafted, visually arresting ode to Life, the Universe and Everything and it’s a simple one: The film is completely insufferable.
Lay the blame at narrator Cate Blanchett’s feet. Okay, not at her directly, she was just reading a script, though if you fed a coffee-house poet a hit of ketamine and led them off on a Malick-inspired riff, their only direction “purple as you can be,” you wouldn’t get something terribly different from the breathy incantation that coats this film front to back. And anyway, Blanchett was the one who actually had to say the line, and this is a direct quote, “Time. Ravaging. Devouring All. What lasts?” so it’s safe to say she’s been through enough.
But do blame those breathy incantations, which add a wildcard of gonzo tone-deafness to a film that is otherwise exactly what you’d expect it to be. Which is to say, a feature-length extension of the pitch-perfect Birth of the Universe sequence from Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” The director uses the same special effects team, the same balance of CGI, laboratory experiments and magic-hour-in-paradise location shooting, and even some of the very same shots he employed in his 2011 Palme d’Or winner, and from a purely visual level, they achieve the same hypnotic effect. There’s just a hell of a lot more of them here, and an hour and half of them with no other connective tissue really weighs you (and the film) down.
There’s also a fair amount of “present day” footage popping at beginning and then intermittently throughout the film. Shot on low quality digital devices (a cellphone or a cheap camcorder, likely), and hailing from all over the globe, the footage shows religious ceremonies, markets, bull fights and street scenes, and essentially has the same effect as the family narrative of “The Tree of Life,” but in reverse. Whereas “The Tree of Life” took one intense, fundamentally subjective experience and contextualized it within the vast sweep of time, this new film, about that sweep of time, stops every now and then to remind that hey — people are alive right now!
Of course, you can’t build 15 minutes into 90 without making some significant additions, and the film does break some semi-new ground for the director. One of those “the world today” inserts shows Israeli soldiers overseeing a Palestinian refugee camp, and then follows it with a shot of a young child with flies on his face. Now, Malick has certainly dealt with issues of war and sovereignty in prior work, but he’s situated those stories far enough in the past that he never really engaged with the world’s current geo-political configuration. Which makes it interesting – if that’s even his intention – to see him stake a position relevant to the here and now.
Otherwise, he does appear to pay homage to Kubrick in the new film’s dawn of civilization segment. After showing primitive man’s most rudimentary dwelling – basically walls carved into the side of a cliff – he cuts right to an overhead helicopter shot of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure, in a move reminiscent of Kubrick’s first tool/best tool edit from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
As you see, these “additions” are small potatoes, really. That the wily transcendentalist may pay homage to respected forbearer makes nice trivia, but for the most part he’s far gone on his own cloud. Everything else is pure, freebased Malick, from the music cues to the magic-hour-every-hour shots, to the absolutely rapturous way he captures nature. There are sequences and stand-alone shots that will stick with you long after you’ve washed the insipid narration from memory, and that bodes extraordinarily well for the 40-minute, Brad Pitt-narrated version that will be playing in Toronto next week.
This version, however, bogged down as it is by insipid narration and a punishing running length, makes this “Voyage of Time” a trip not worth taking.
“Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey” debuted at the Venice Film Festival.