‘Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience’
Director: Terrence Malick
4 (out of 5) Globes
What would an educational movie about the history of the universe made by Terrence Malick look like? Now we know. It would look a lot like Terrence Malick’s “Voyage of Time,” an IMAX spectacular that’s also a kind of gift, to late-period Malick-heads and specifically to acolytes of his 2011 masterpiece “The Tree of Life.” Even more specifically, it plays like a supersized version of that one’s best isolated stretch, in which the drama about a family undone by loss is suddenly interrupted by an extended flashback all the way to the beginnings of time — a “the story so far” flashback done in the most literal and awe-inspiring way possible. We saw the cosmos in their trippy birthing pangs. We saw undulating galaxies that looked like paint bleeding in a tank of water (which is partly what it was). We even saw a sad dinosaur. It essentially found one of the few experimental filmmakers working in or near the mainstream doing his own remake of the “Rite of Spring” section from “Fantasia.” And it was, for lack of a bigger word, awesome.
“Voyage of Time” is awesome, too, but it isn’t a mere repackaging; it’s a whole new beast. There appear to be no repeated shots from “The Tree of Life,” and F/X god Douglas Trumbull, the “2001: A Space Odyssey” techie who came out of retirement for Terry, has been replaced by visual effects designer Dan Glass. Brad Pitt does return, though, purring lofty Malickisms — those brief, detached snippets of poetry chuckleheads mislabel as “pretentious” — into your ear through booming Dolby speakers. Meanwhile your eyes are seared by sky-high 70mm images. These scenes imagine the first molecules, the creation of planets, the cooling of our planet, the first sparks of life on Earth — dragging us all the way up to such pillars of man as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the camera gliding over a spire that looks like it might poke our eye out, even without the use of 3-D.
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This all sounds too basic for Malick, even before you learn he bangs it all out in only 45 minutes. (A 90-minute, non-IMAX version also exists, and reportedly boasts far more of Malick’s patented philosophizing and digressions.) He’s not a filmmaker much into plot, his early scripts for “Dirty Harry” and the like aside. But “Voyage” is no mere history lesson. It’s closer to “The New World,” where he gives us a rough foundation (the colonization of America there, the entire history of the universe here) then builds his own deeply eccentric building on top of it.
It’s almost a relief to learn that, as a science/history lesson, “Voyage” is weak sauce. Pitt’s narration tends to generalize or tell us things anyone, even the child he’s ostensibly talking to, already knows. A bit of hard data about how the Earth formed will inevitably lead to some whispered musing, like “When did dust become life?” It’s tempting to think of Malick narration tracks as philosophy, but they never form into long-form, coherent thoughts. They’re not designed to be. Malick is interested in little bursts of poetry meant to trigger our own thoughts, sending each viewer off on their own flight of fancy.
“Voyage of Time” is big and grand and overwhelming enough that you could conceivably ignore the chatter altogether and groove on the steady procession of mind-blowing imagery. Maybe even those not into late-period Malick will find themselves complaining that this new late-period Terrence Malick movie isn't 100 hours long. They're not wrong: He does rush through this history, could stand to just hang back and let us trip out a touch more. But then it might not be a Terrence Malick movie.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge