Over the years, I’ve used “shot as if Terrence Malick were behind the camera” as shorthand for praise for any documentary in which images of nature are filmed with lyrical, visually-stunning panache. Malick, a narrative fiction director who has made a host of gorgeous films, including Badlands, Days of Heaven and The New World, has always provided the prism through which I look at the most cinematically ambitious documentary filmmakers. And so, I could hardly contain myself when news spread that Malick was directing his first documentary, Voyage of Time.
As it turns out, Voyage of Time is actually two different documentaries: There’s Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, which runs 40 minutes and is narrated by Brad Pitt, and then there’s Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, which runs twice as long and is narrated by Cate Blanchett.
The former, which is being released this Friday, October 7th, is what I’m calling, “the family, mainstream version,” and it’s the one I’ve been able to see so far. I was enthralled throughout: Malick sets out to tackle no smaller feat than the creation of the universe and life on earth. But that’s what one would expect from his oeuvre, which tends to take on such big questions.
What’s curious about Voyage of Time is that it feels like a science doc that would air at your local planetarium or natural history museum, but it’s not. It’s much more. First, it’s exquisitely constructed, from the visual effects used to render the gassy soup that represents our universe when it first came into existence to the wide shots of verdant hills, lava flows and the depths of the sea. Second, Malick doesn’t chase answers but, instead, he seems more comfortable asking questions.
“Why not perfect, complete?” That’s what Pitt asks at one point while earth’s messy road to fruition is traced. At times like these, I was move to consider the religiosity of the film. The Christian themes in Malick’s films have become increasingly pronounced, and it’s a credit to the film that atheists and evangelicals might well be able to sit through it without rolling their eyes. (Unless they’re evolution-denying Christians who maintain the earth is a couple thousand years old. Those guys should stay home because the film plays like a celebration of evolution.)
It’s an interesting question about the motivation behind this film: has IMAX teamed up with Malick, knowing that he would deliver a film that Christian audiences might embrace? I may follow up on this at a later date. As for those who worship at the altar of Pitt, I like him fine but I’m not sure his narration is quite right here: he doesn’t always articulate well — although he does attain a suitable tone of awe and gravity.
I wouldn’t say Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience is the answer to my dreams of what a Terrence Malick documentary would be, but it’s certainly a fantastic, poetic ride. And I look forward to catching Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey when it gets a release date.
Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience opens in theaters Friday, October 7. Visit the official website for showtimes in your area.