'Voyage of Time: Life's Journey': Venice Review

Voyage of Time Life's Journey - Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of TIFF
A uniquely vivid work.

Terrence Malick describes the origins of the universe while Cate Blanchett questions the one who made it.

Along with hyperbolic developments in cinema technology comes the desire to use them in ever more ambitious ways, and perhaps no one has yet attempted to combine all these advances with the profound spiritual questions Terrence Malick asks in Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey. Though a documentary, it is close in spirit to the director’s 2011 Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life, but with all the narrative stripped away and simplified to underline its philosophical preoccupations. The off-screen narrator is a clear-voiced Cate Blanchett and throughout this dazzling, wide-ranging film it is God she is talking to, in the form of the Mother.

“Mother, who are you?” Blanchett’s voice queries her maker. She answers herself: “Life giver, light bringer.” Using imagery that fires the imagination, some of it taken from the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA space probes and the Solar Dynamic Observatory and some created in the studio laboratory with paint and gelatin, Malick vividly describes the dark void before creation. Then patterns of light like nerve synapses suggest a primordial energy that yearns to express itself. In a symphony of bright colors, a series of supernovas exploding in black space get the ball rolling.

If Tree of Life, with its images of space and its evolutionary theme, has been likened to Stanley Kubrick’s sweeping vision of humankind in 2001: A Space Odyssey, what to say about Voyage of Time? From the origin of the physical universe to the appearance of humankind on Earth and into the future, Malick’s vision goes beyond the most elaborate science and nature documentaries. An orgy of glorious, astounding images filmed in 35mm fill the viewer with awe, and on a sheerly visceral level, these effects should be even more powerful in the 45-minute Voyage of Time: The Imax Experience narrated by co-producer Brad Pitt, which is scheduled to bow in Toronto before an October release.

The idea of making a film about the birth of the universe is hardly a new one for Malick. It was first conceived in the late 1970s as a project known simply as Q and was originally backed by Paramount. One can only imagine how greatly the advances in technology over the last 40 years have influenced the finished film. Accompanied by a symphony of light and music, 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, we know our planet has been formed. Later, lonely creatures appear and roam the land, dinosaurs and their kin, until a streaking comet suggests that it’s time for one form of life to bite the dust.

A long but fascinating sequence trawling through oceans of wonder brings the audience in contact with sea creatures that boggle the imagination: jellyfish by the thousands, whales and octopus and other animals.

Though it sounds like a hard act to pull off, Blanchett’s recurring queries to the Mother/God give meaning to these sensuous but ultimately distant visuals. “Nature, what am I to you?” “Mother, will you ever abandon me?” While some viewers may find this sort of general interfaith questioning off-putting, her questions turn a fabulously filmed and scored documentary into a Terrence Malick film. Like an ancient, timeless prayer, these entreaties fill the void between nature and man.

If there is a missing ingredient in this otherwise extremely impressive opus, however, it is emotion. The contemplation of greatness, vastness and infinity doesn't lend itself to simple feelings and the succession of fantastic natural imagery begins to tire. This is probably why it's periodically interrupted with blurred, high-colored shots of human life today: the poor and hungry on the streets, Indians singing and dancing, Buddhist prayer wheels, protestors in Tahrir Square. We welcome any small glimpse of the ordinary world where, nestled between the volcanoes and the glaciers, human chaos counterbalances the monstrous, inhuman beauty of the world.

One of the final sequences introduces early humans to the Earth. With their strong naked bodies, wild hair and Aboriginal faces, the actors are photographed in bits of swooping camerawork that suggest rather than show what they are doing. At one point a man stares at his reflection in a pool of water and understandably becomes fascinated by it. If the workings of the source behind the universe must ultimately remain mysterious, we can at least identify with our fellows. That may be why, when the shots of their cave-like dwellings carved into the rocks give way to the thrilling dance of lights and skyscrapers in nighttime Dubai, the heart leaps with joy. Even if, in the filmmakers’ vision, our future is to melt away in a giant golden cauldron in space.   

The sequences are beautifully edited by Keith Fraase and Rehman Ali, who give them different rhythms, but manage to keep a feeling of moving forward in time. Location shooting in Hawaii, Iceland, Chile, the American Southwest and Papua New Guinea works seamlessly with highly imaginative visual effects overseen in the studio by Dan Glass and production designer Jack Fisk.    

Venue: Venice Film Festival
Production companies: Imax Experience, Broad Green Pictures, Sophisticated Films
Narrator: Cate Blanchett
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
Sound: Joel Dougherty
Visual effects supervisor: Dan Glass
Editors: Rehman Ali, Keith Fraase
World sales: Wild Bunch

Not rated, 90 minutes