In one of the most remarkable sequences in his 2011 Palme d’Or-winning film ‘The Tree of Life’, director Terrence Malick brought the narrative to a halt and, in an act of thrilling ambition, depicted in images and sound the birth of the universe and the origins of our planet. It was unlike anything cinema had seen, and something Malick had been attempting to do on film for decades. In the years after the release of the film, it was announced that Malick wasn’t done with this idea yet, expanding it into a full documentary feature titled ‘Voyage of Time’, where the footage he and his collaborators had been gathering since the 70s from around the world could be showcased as a tone poem to the existence of life itself.
There are two versions of ‘Voyage of Time’, ea ch a different length, made for a different format and with a different narrator. The version screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival is subtitled ‘The IMAX Experience’, running at 45 minutes and created specifically for the IMAX format. The film is made up of three technical elements - the footage itself, a score comprised of a number of classical pieces and a narration written by Malick and performed by Brad Pitt. Combining documentary footage with carefully composed visual effects, ‘Voyage of Time’ takes you from what we imagine to be the birth of the universe right through to the death of our solar system. We watch as the earth builds itself, as life grows from within the oceans and emerges onto the land, the age of the dinosaurs and the cataclysm that brought it to an end, the first humans and where we are today, and the death of our sun billions of years in our future. Its storytelling is simple, yet the scope of the film is enormous, especially when presented in a format like IMAX.
SWITCH: 'VOYAGE OF TIME' TRAILER
The footage itself is incredible, some of it unlike anything we’ve seen in documentary films in the past. Malick has a unique eye for capturing the unexpected and impulsive moments in nature, and often under his guidance the camera captures tremendous beauty. Combined with the score, ‘Voyage of Time’ is an often breathtaking kaleidoscope of the mechanics of our planet and the enormity of it. We watch as fire belches from below the ground, as whales of impossible size glide through the ocean, as rainforests shimmer with life. The film also expands on the remarkable visual effects of the universe that were so astounding in ‘The Tree of Life’, visual effects supervisor Dan Glass and his team giving us a sense of space being as organic and unpredictable as the landscapes on our own planet. On the IMAX screen, the footage looks even more remarkable, allowing the audience to disappear into the film... well, almost.
For all its stunning visual work, ‘Voyage of Time’ isn’t quite the success I had personally hoped it would be, and that comes down to the unnecessary narration. This isn’t a fault of Brad Pitt, who does a fine job, but Malick’s text is often uncomfortably on-the-nose, almost self-consciously poetic and often telling us what it is that we’re seeing when explanation isn’t necessary. The visual and aural storytelling in the film is already very clear, so the narration feels like an intrusion rather than as a guide. In a weird way, it reminds you of the artifice of the experience, reminding you that you are watching a film and pulling you out of the experience just as you feel yourself settling in. In the end, I found myself resenting the narration for getting in the way when all I wanted to do was collapse into the film and allow it to wash over me. I suspect that the film could have been even more affecting without it.
Its storytelling is simple, yet the scope of the film is enormous, especially when presented in a format like IMAX.
As impressive a technical feat as it is, ‘Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience’ never quite achieves the same sense of awe that ‘The Tree of Life’ sequence did. Terrence Malick’s intentions are clearly as pure as ever, and it is great to see him properly freed of narrative bounds so he can embrace the remarkable sense of visual poetry that makes him so distinctive a filmmaker, but the self-aware narration ends up distracting rather than inviting us in. That said, it’s still quite a special experience, one perfectly built for the IMAX format. There were moments that took my breath away, images that spoke very deeply to our shared connection with the natural world, and regardless of his recent failings, Terrence Malick is still one of the most important directors working today. ‘Voyage of Time’ gives us the chance to celebrate his skill as a visual storyteller. It’ll be interesting to compare this version to the full 90-minute version narrated by Cate Blanchett showing as part of the Melbourne Festival in October.