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Review of Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, Directed by Terrence Malick

The Terrence Malick surge continues. This blog has covered the filmmaker’s Knight of Cups from earlier this year and, even more recently, The Vessel, which he executive produced. The sudden burst of output from a filmmaker who took off 20 years between his second and third features has more than satisfied audiences hungry for his sincere grappling with nature, desire and the state of the human soul.

The arrival of Malick’s Voyage of Time, the first of two versions of his long-gestating documentary spanning the dawn of creation to the end of all things, is an event, not just because of the filmmaker behind it, but because of how it’s being presented. This first version, dubbed The IMAX Experience, runs only 44 minutes, is rated G, and is narrated by Brad Pitt. (A non-IMAX, 90-minute, PG-13 rated version of the film, titled Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, is narrated by Cate Blanchett. Life’s Journey has played at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals but does not yet have a North American release date.)

I’m already eager to see the longer version of Voyage of Time because this shorter one proved frustrating. Whereas Knight of Cups and Malick’s The Tree of Life used narration and voiceover to ponder the divine while wrestling with the human condition—in one memorable moment, even referencing Romans 7:15—Voyage of Time tackles creation through a scientific lens that, while pictured vividly, feels like it’s missing something that was present in Malick’s  more recent films.

Of course, no viewers will be expecting a re-creation of Genesis 3 in this documentary, and Christians with a flexible view of creation may very well find enough of God in the beauty of what’s shown. But lines such as, “Death: When did it first appear?” don’t dig deeper into the meaning of death (at least not in this short version), or to any consequences beyond the merely physical, while “How was it made—the good you love?” is followed by “Life comes up from the sea.” Perhaps so, but, to draw a crude comparison, there’s a lot of Darwin here, and not much Deity, at least not in the way Malick’s recent works have approached the supernatural.

By the time Pitt says, “Consciousness: Was it always there?” to the image of a large-headed fish, the insistence on finding a connection between humans and other forms of life (sea, etc.) begins to grow exasperating, especially considering how little we see of humanity. (Although viewers are addressed as “child” in on-screen text that appears as the film opens).

We might be able to fill in the film’s many blanks were we given more about man in The IMAX Experience. Instead, after some early images of children in what appears to be a suburban back yard, the film moves to the beginning of time. Early man—walking with spears, hunting—won’t be seen until Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience is nearing its end, and then it will rush past modern man to point to an end point for all creation.

This is not to say that Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience shouldn’t be seen. If you are able to screen it at an IMAX theater, you won’t soon forget it. Malick’s symphony of gorgeous images, projected on a huge IMAX screen and set to classical music, is spectacular much of the time. But the film cries out for a more direct connection to the Maker of these things. Minus that, we’re watching a fascinating, but frustrating, nature documentary that leaves us longing to know more about the One behind the wonders depicted.

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