‘Voyage of Time: The Imax Experience’: Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Will still set the benchmark for natural history documentaries in the years to come.
10/7/2016

Terrence Malick’s history of the universe flies by in under an hour on the giant Imax screen.

Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival a week after the 35mm feature film Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey bowed in Venice, the 45-minute Voyage of Time, The Imax Experience is not surprisingly the more visceral physical experience. It also is far less magical and mystical than the longer version, where Cate Blanchett questions the Mother about her purpose in the universe. Here, co-producer Brad Pitt’s matter-of-fact narration is stripped of spiritual connotations and seems aimed to dazzle a younger audience of children and students. As the history of the universe speeds by in spectacular full-screen images, the eerie, intimate, urgent need to know why, which was so unique in Life’s Journey, dissolves into a pure documentary and writer-director Terrence Malick’s voice is muted beneath all those superb visual effects.

Though the wonder of galaxies, nature and the planet Earth is magnified to room-size, the feeling of awe is undercut by a perhaps inevitably rushed quality. Let’s say that 45 minutes isn’t a whole lot of time to cover several billion years of natural history. Nearly all the shots used by editors Keith Fraase and Rehman Ali in the Imax film are present in the feature, which was long enough to give them time to construct a symphonic build-up to emotional peaks. Here, there is less music, more facts. On the other hand, the shorter format seems to follow the same structure of a chronological timeline, and no major sequence has been cut out.

After all the comparisons have been made, this is a magnificent documentary that is going to set the benchmark for history-of-the-universe films in the years to come. More than a decade in the making, it avails itself of top scientific consultants lead by NASA advisor Andrew Knoll and sticks as close as possible to current thinking on how the universe came into being, how the Earth was formed and how life began and evolved over the course of billions of years. The imagination is fired by an orgy of glorious, astounding images, some taken from Hubble Space Telescope, NASA space probes and the Solar Dynamic Observatory, some created in the studio out of spilled paint and gelatin. Where photographs are missing, Malick’s team guided by his regular production designer Jack Fisk and visual effects supervisor Dan Glass credibly invent them.

The Voyage of Time project is closest in spirit to the director’s 2011 Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life starring Brad Pitt, whose evolutionary theme and images of light and space recall Stanley Kubrick’s sweeping vision of humankind in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Malick’s urge to make a film about the birth of the universe was first conceived in the late 1970s as a project known simply as Q backed by Paramount. One can only imagine how the advances in technology over the last 40 years influenced the finished film.

The story begins in a dark void, where patterns of light like nerve synapses indicate a primordial energy ready to burst forth in a symphony of exploding stars and galaxies. A black ball rolls through space: the Earth. On it, volcanoes spew their fiery guts into the sky in dense gray clouds, and by the time the steamy lava cools to form the shoals of an ocean, the planet has been created. Then bacteria, the first forms of life, appear.

There are proto-mammals. There are monstrous sea creatures and dancing jellyfish. There are dinosaurs. Showing this film is aimed at children, the opening and closing shots are of a little girl thoughtfully walking through a field as the camera swoops around her. There’s a little more upfront information than in the feature film. For example, Brad Pitt explains the consequences of the asteroid that crashes into the planet, which covered the Earth in a layer of dust, killing all plant life and causing the dinosaurs to starve.

If the feature film reached for, and often failed to achieve, great emotions to match its imagery, the non-contemplative Imax Experience seems even farther from this goal. Vastness and infinity are all fine and good, but the beauty of the universe tends to feel monstrous and inhuman without an element of human chaos to counterbalance it. When Paleolithic man finally gets his close-up, the audience feels a thrilling moment of self-recognition. This is followed by a breathtaking dance of lights as the camera flies over nighttime Dubai and the 2,700-foot Burj Al-Khalifa, the tallest structure in the world and one of humankind’s most impressive architectural achievements. How quickly time flies.

Production companies: Imax Experience, Broad Green Pictures, Sophisticated Films
Narrator: Brad Pitt
Director-screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Producers: Dede Gardner, Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green, Grant Hill, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad, Sophokles Tasioulis
Director of photography: Paul Atkins
Production designer: Jack Fisk
Visual effects supervisor: Dan Glass
Editors: Rehman Ali, Keith Fraase
World sales: Wild Bunch

Not rated, 45 minutes

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