Active Ingredients: Childlike wonder; painterly images; poetic inquiry
Side Effects: Truncated feel
Terrence Malick’s paean to existence, Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, begins with an incantation, an invitation to its watcher. “Dear Child,” it begins. “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.”
That the film is explicitly addressed to Child is no accident. Whether it speaks to a literal boy or girl, like the ones we see in the film’s opening minutes; the ever-inquisitive inner child within all of us; or the child of the universe that is every living thing is irrelevant. All are one, all yoked together in the unfathomable miracle of existence.
Each of these valiances of the film’s “Child” resonates throughout its short runtime. (Truncated even—a 90-minute version, apparently even more poetic, will be release next year.) While the film’s rhythms might perhaps flummox a restless adolescent, it is genuinely and sensitively addressed to a young person curious about the world and prone to wonderment. Malick has always had the ability to find grace and beauty everywhere around him, just as a child is ceaselessly amazed by the mysteries of the world. Indeed, it’s rare to see a true child’s film—not a hyperkinetic and idiotic cartoon, but a work sincerely engaged in a child’s perception, emotional experience or worldview. To the right inquisitive, sensitive kid, Voyage of Time could find its place alongside The Red Balloon, Microcosmos or Fantasia in the cinema of the child.
Voyage of Time is a documentary and a science film, yes, but it’s delicately woven together with the eye of painting and the soul of poetry. It progresses linearly, from the birth of the steaming orb that is Earth, through the development of its topography, to the birth and evolution of life—a process that brings us to our present moment, where humans and their modern cities exist among the infinite expanse of nature. It even accounts for the end of this life, the somehow uplifting inevitability of being swept up into the timelessness of being. What might that experience look like?
Through it all, the film seeks to fill us with wonderment of all kinds. We appreciate the abstract beauty of the film’s depiction of celestial objects (many created simply with water and light, dyes and pigments); we marvel at images of graceful animals and impossibly vast landscapes; and perhaps we reflect, as the film’s poetry invites us to do, on the quasi-spiritual awe that life provokes. As the film returns to the contemporary world and a small girl thinking about her place in the universe, I was deeply moved by the scope of Malick’s vision. His is not, as many hasten to categorize it, a binary between the beauty of Nature and the baseness of the human world. Both are equally wondrous elements of the same history of existence.
One of the film’s more provocative ruminations is on the role of consciousness within life. The film sketches a rough distinction between the earliest, cellular forms of life and creatures that discover will, need, desire. Predators must find food; animals must couple to reproduce. That Malick frames this latter drive as “love” may rankle some, but within the cosmic scope of his inquiry I think it’s a fitting way to conceptualize the force that makes life and time itself move forward.
Pointedly, Malick focuses on the eyes of many animals he shoots—the windows to the soul, as the saying goes. In one shot of some massive cephalopod, the camera drifts slowly towards an open eye, holding much longer than a normal nature documentary would, allowing the soft, ghostly echoes of underwater sounds to fill our ears. Rather than simply document the strangeness or beauty of animals, Malick seems genuinely curious to imagine their experience of life, their place in the tapestry of existence. What’s going on behind those cold, vacant eyes? What’s going on behind our own?
Malick also finds a way to direct his images beyond mere photographic beauty and into the realm of art. Other documentaries may easily capture a stunning sunset or a verdant forest, but Malick’s images have light and dimension. Inspiration for the film was said to be drawn from the work of 19th-century landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, and indeed the film has a distinctly painterly quality. It even has tactility; never before have I been so made aware of the specific qualities and textures of air and space. Through beautiful lighting and the fall of shadows, Malick shows the gleam of particles and again encourages to hold the micro- and macroscopic in our minds simultaneously.
I’ll be anxiously awaiting the longer version of the film, Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey. I expect that to be an ever fuller, richer and more complex exploration of Malick’s ideas, but this short version will do marvelously for now. It may feel incomplete, a mere sketch of a fuller masterpiece, but its genuine rediscovery of a child’s wonderment more than makes up for it.