The bottom of the sea, the top of the sky, the swirling psychedelic gasses of outer space, the writhing protoplasm of inner life: When you’re gawking at images like these and they cast a spell of majestic awe, the images need no other justification, and “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey” is full of them. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, the film is a mystic love poem to the unfathomable splendor of the natural world — which, if you get close enough to it, is out of this world. The version of “Voyage of Time” that premiered at the Venice Film Festival is 90 minutes of spectacularly beautiful nature-ific eye candy. It was shot, however, for IMAX , and when a very different version of it opens next month on IMAX screens, it will be only 45 minutes long. (The feature-length film will be released in select international markets starting next year.)
That, make no mistake, is a good thing. “Voyage of Time” has too many spellbinding images to count, but as a movie it’s just OK. It’s exactly what it sounds like — essentially an expanded version of the cosmic prologue from Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” But that sequence seduced you with its trippy splendor, presented the entire formation of the Earth, and turned that into a heavy contemplation of a higher power… all in 20 minutes.
In “Voyage of Time,” more of this becomes less — not because the film is boring (it glides by), but because it’s at once captivating and diffuse, a grab-bag of wonder set against a narration of solemn quasi-banality read by Cate Blanchett, with interwoven shots of people from around the planet, most of them photographed with a cell-phone camera (the new equivalent of grainy shaky 16mm), which doesn’t add up to much because these sequences feel arbitrary and vaguely didactic. A montage of American homeless people; an Israeli wedding; a ceremony in a rural Asian town square that involves the ritual slaughter of water buffalo. These sequences tend to sap the film’s momentum (they make it sag), and that’s one reason it loses power as it goes along. “Voyage of Time” is like a more contemplative, fragmented, throw-everything-at-the-wall version of “Koyaanisqatsi” with narration by Rod McKuen.
These days, when everything is divided into oppositional tribes, two camps that are most definitely not speaking to each other are the Creationists and those who believe in evolutionary science. But Malick, as a film artist, is like a walking truce between those two points of view. He’s a New Age Christian sentimentalist who makes explicitly religious movies (more and more, they’re about talking to God), and the theme of “Voyage of Time” is that there’s a Creator, and he has created life, and that is a splendid thing, but we cannot know his grand plan. Here, though, as in “The Tree of Life,” Malick presents a vision of the cosmos that’s essentially “scientific”: the brilliantly multicolored oozing waves of galactic light matter, the otherworldly species under the sea that suggest rungs on the evolutionary ladder.
A vast team of visual-effects artists worked on “Voyage of Time” (led by Dan Glass, the film’s visual effects supervisor), and part of what’s captivating about the movie is that it’s hard to tell where the effects leave off and the natural photography begins. The celestial visions of outer space were, for the most part, created, and Malick orchestrates them like a painter of light and gravity — they’re like something on a Sistine Chapel ceiling that moves. But were all of them created? Much of the staggering nebula look like actual telescopic images, and when the film is under the sea, gazing at some creature that looks for all the world like an octopus with tentacles made of Romaine lettuce, we think, “Is that thing… real?” The same goes for hellishly billowing volcano smoke and shots of fragmented glacier ice. The confusion is intentional. Malick is telling us that nature will always be the ultimate special effect.
You might say that Malick’s philosophy in “Voyage of Time” is a version of “intelligent design,” yet somehow that phrase sells it short. He sees God’s touch in the glory and strangeness of every natural surface — a flower of extraordinary delicacy whose outer petals look like a wedding dress and whose inner petals look like shark’s teeth, or jellyfish pulsating with such diaphanous synchronization that we can’t help but have the feeling that there’s something purposeful about them. The message of the images in “Voyage of Time” is that if you’re searching for God, you need do little more than cast your eye over everything on Earth.
The film’s narration, unfortunately, is of a less intelligent design. It’s meant to be incantatory, a poem of sacramental inquiry, with Blanchett speaking to the higher power of nature, to the very spirit of life, whom she personifies as “Mother” (how’s that for ancient and post-feminist at the same time?), asking Her questions that have no answer: “Who are you, life giver? Light bringer?” A little of this goes a long way, especially when, half an hour later, Blanchett is still at it, saying things like “All life. Giver of good. Creating yourself. In ever-changing shapes. You give. Without asking.” Or the slightly perplexing “Who am I to you? You devour yourself, only to give birth to yourself again.” I kept waiting for Blanchett to add, “I’m here till Tuesday. And are you, life giver?” If an Imax nature movie is going to turn into a prayer, it should be one that’s a bit more varied.
Making a film that has the contemporary aspect of a planetarium show is, in its way, a deeply cool and populist thing to do, and “Voyage of Time” is likely to connect with audiences in a way that the blurry poetic narratives Malick has been making of late — “Knight of Cups,” “To the Wonder” — have not. “The Tree of Life” was a masterpiece, because it wedded visual poetry to masterfully staged scenes. It was filmmaking, not dithering, and it proved that Malick could indeed find a form for his metaphysical obsessions. He finds a form in “Voyage of Time,” but if he continues down this path, it would be nice to see him shake off a little of the excess mysticism and make a nature movie whose final effect is an honest “Wow!” rather than a semi-enraptured “Hmmm.”