Somewhere between his debut feature Badlands and this year’s Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick peeled conventional narrative from his films; his work became unashamedly naked. Malick’s new modest opus, Voyage of Time, is a radical diversion not simply because it’s his first “documentary” but because Malick is unsure about his theology.
There are two versions of Voyage of Time — Life’s Journey, the 90-minute feature narrated by Cate Blanchett and The IMAX Experience, a 44-minute cut with Brad Pitt as the Malick stand-in. The feature intercuts the birth and evolution of the universe with low grade DV footage of modern wars, natural disasters and cruelty towards animals. The IMAX Experience moves in a relatively straight line and removes the modern digital footage. While the feature is philosophical, the shorter version is pedagogical.
Those who have trouble following Malick’s musing should have little difficulty with either film. Rarely engaging with any of the feature-length’s ambivalence, the film gets by on the shallow majesty of its images. When the plain narration enters into a pseudo-elliptical mode, we’re witnessing the film that Malick dissenters have been reviewing for the last five years.
Despite criticisms of “self-parody,” Malick never imitates himself but instead builds layers and meanings on his established edifices, cathedrals as Matt Zoller Seitz once referred to them. In The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups the reclusive director poured his soul onto the screen in an abstracted, volatile montage and furthered his formal experimentation. This unofficial trilogy marked the first time one of his films took place in a contemporary setting. Whether it be the Babel-like skyscrapers of The Tree of Life, the cold suburban developments of To the Wonder or the decadent Hollywood interiors of Knight of Cups, Malick’s later work views post-modern space from a position of disconcerted empathy. Like adding pieces to a puzzle, the director comes closer and closer to encapsulating his worldview with each passing film. In that sense, Voyage of Time re-draws as many pieces as it fills in.
When the Tree of Life cuts from a grieving mother in 1950s Texas to the formation of the universe, it’s God answering her inquisitive prayers. The scene also alludes to the epigraphical passage from Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”), which positions the sequence as a response to the problem of evil. Nature’s complexity, design and beauty are the workings of God, an all-knowing benevolent being whose plan extends to the mosaic of the lives on earth.Voyage of Time is an ode to creation that mostly excludes the creator from Malick’s paradigm, adopting the point of view of natural processes as independent from divine guidance.
Voyage of Time, about the interconnectivity of all matter, reflects upon the “hows” and not so much on the “whys.” With a series of colorful, elaborate graphic matches we watch as all life, all time and all space are connected. A scorching fire in a run-down hut parallels a pre-historic volcanic eruption. A nebula is nearly identical in color and structure to an atom. Where one is infinitesimally small the other is infinitesimally large, and both are imbued with the same delicate beauty. Malick conjoins matter and affect, the cosmic and the molecular, the past and the present. There cannot be joy without pain, beauty without ugliness, elation without depression, or sin without redemption. Nature is no longer God’s response to human suffering but an entity unto itself, a giant whirligig that we’re all a part of.
Voyage of Time, especially Life’s Journey, is frustrating and fascinating as a response to The Tree of Life. Although the film encapsulates all existence it’s rooted within the mind of its creator; it’s stream-of-conscious thoughts accompanied by mental projections. Voyage of Time is also internalized within Malick’s body of work, quoting, circling and trying to come to terms with the gnawing questions that have subsumed him. “Where are you,” Blanchett’s narrator asks to “Mother,” a question almost identical to one of Jessica Chastain’s ruminations in The Tree of Life. Voyage of Time is a self-reflexive peep hole into the director’s meditations on life, both personal and external, despite rarely coalescing into something potent.
The descriptors of Mother, called an “abyss of light,” associate the elusive entity with contradictory philosophies. “You devour yourself only to give birth to yourself again,” Blanchett utters, defining her with a materialism that borders on pantheism. But at another point Blanchett calls out to Mother as if she were the God in Job: “Mother you walked with me then, in the silence, before there was a world, before night or day, alone in the stillness.” Life’s Journey declares in its final moments that love flows through all things via a cycle of death and rebirth. This conclusion doesn’t engage with the metaphysical quandary at Voyage of Time’s core, and it’s an all-too-clean answer for a film torn in all directions. Pleading for a clarity in ambiguous universe, the narrator gently asks “Mother, what do I love when I love you?” If only this could have been the films end.
That Malick’s style has been appropriated by TV commercials, mainstream Hollywood and art house indies speaks to the evocative nature of his cinema. No film made in the last five years has impacted the form of visual media more than The Tree of Life. Malick’s work feels like the byproduct of a cosmologist and a humanist, a philosopher and an everyman, or the labor of the cinema’s most humble director. Even when we can’t grasp what he’s saying, we feel the weight of it. Voyage of Time, in both versions, is the first time a Malick film is caged within itself, the soul never quite reaching the liberated transcendence that all of his characters are so desperately looking for.