Terrence Malick's "Voyage of Time: The Imax Experience" is a glorious cosmic reverie, a feast for the eyes and a balm for the soul in these angry, contentious times. And I'm not just saying that because, through a serendipitous feat of counterprogramming by the good people at Imax, I happened to see the movie on the same night as last week's presidential debate.
Then again, maybe I am. After all, would I have succumbed so gratefully to the gentle aural massage of Brad Pitt's narration if I hadn't just endured an hour of angry shouting and sniffling? After so much apocalyptic bluster about urban hellholes and Third World airports, is it any surprise that the film's re-creation of an asteroid crashing into the Earth filled me not with shock and terror but with a measure of sweet relief?
You'll forgive me for asking so many questions. I'm still shaking off the effects of the relentlessly self-interrogating style that has become Malick's preferred mode of verbal expression.
"When did dust become life?" asks Pitt's narrator. "Is love, too, not a work of nature?" It's easy enough to scoff at Malick's grandiose sentiments and whispery mini-homilies, his attempts to put into words the very mystery of being. But in "Voyage of Time," the limitations of his dialogue feel less like a failing than an honest (if not always necessary) attempt to keep pace with the transporting eloquence of his visuals.
Increasingly impatient with the trappings of traditional narrative, as demonstrated by his recent, hyper-elliptical dramas "To the Wonder" and "Knight of Cups," Malick has dispensed with fiction entirely — though not, pointedly, with storytelling — and unleashed a tide of pure sound and image. First dreamed up by the writer-director in the 1970s (its title could be a reference to its long development history), "Voyage of Time" is a documentary poem on the cyclical nature of life, the history of the planet and the very origins of the known universe.
If that sounds at all familiar, chances are you've already seen Malick's 2011 masterpiece, "The Tree of Life," which dared to merge an impressionistic, semi-autobiographical vision of 1950s Texas boyhood with a stunning 20-minute leap into the ancient past. That sequence was more than just a trippy eye-candy intermission. It was a spectacular reminder that all existence is interconnected, and that even the most ordinary-seeming childhood is, in fact, its own monumental creation story.
With "Voyage of Time," Malick has effectively pried this sequence loose from "The Tree of Life" and coaxed it into its own state of being. And as ever with this filmmaker, a thoroughgoing iconoclast who famously works to his own rhythms, the process has been one of continual experimentation and discovery.
"Voyage of Time: The Imax Experience" is a truncated version of "Voyage of Time: Life's Journey," a 90-minute cut that recently premiered at the Venice and Toronto film festivals (and has yet to be released theatrically). That version is narrated by Cate Blanchett in a much more florid, metaphysical register, and its wonders are interspersed with contemporary footage from around the world, shot in a jerky, desultory fashion that suggests Malick's increasing alienation from the reality of modern life.
You can think of "Life's Journey" as the long-winded, grown-up version of "The Imax Experience," which is unapologetically addressed to the kids in the audience (it opens with the on-screen text "Dear child"). Yet as it shows us images of a world slowly coming into being, the film seems entirely assured of its ability to restore even adults to a state of childlike awe.
Toward the beginning the camera slowly zooms in on a nebula, its cloudy iridescence shimmering in the light of its many stars. A volcano erupts in the night, belching lava that will ultimately harden into layers. Cells furiously divide and multiply. A jellyfish undulates in such silently transfixing detail it practically syncs your pulse to its own.
Before long, Pitt informs us, "something new has taken root in the world — the beginnings of need, will, self." A life form crawls ashore. The Earth is suddenly wreathed in a lush mantle of green. A few dinosaurs are briefly seen, some of them looking around with expressions of puzzlement. And then the asteroid hits, and life ends, only to begin again, inching us ever closer to the world as we know it — until we see, in one remarkable shot, an early human glimpsing his reflection in a pool.
What's remarkable about these images, filmed on Imax cameras by the cinematographer Paul Atkins, is that they never feel like mere triumphs of composition or digital engineering (though there is some wizardly work on that front by the visual effects supervisor Dan Glass). They are, above all, startling feats of imagination, rigorous in their research and yet brought to life with a sensitivity and resourcefulness that exist beyond the reach of the empirical.
You can sense the creativity that went into a closeup of bacteria swarming a cell — a marvel of biological re-enactment. Lava shots from Hawaii's ever-active Kilaueau volcano resourcefully stand in for a much older eruption. I don't know how Malick simulated the solar flares, and I'm sure I don't want to.
Suffice to say that, working with a small army of technical advisors (led by the natural historian and NASA consultant Andrew Knoll), he has sought to locate the art in science and the science in art, and to suggest that the two, though often perceived as opposites, are in fact closely intertwined.
If you've seen any of Malick's other movies, you can probably intuit some of the other paradoxes that come to light. One Edenic paradise will be despoiled, but another will thrive. Creation and destruction are inextricably linked; so, for that matter, are creation and evolution. And in the space of just 45 minutes, a movie can grant you a lasting impression of eternity.
'Voyage of Time: The Imax Experience'
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 45 minutes
Playing: California Science Center Imax, Los Angeles