Film Review: Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience

How life began, in an IMAX documentary from one of cinema's great, and at times maddening, stylists.
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"My child, what do you see?" Intoned by Brad Pitt, those words open Voyage of Time, a documentary from one of the more polarizing directors in the industry, Terrence Malick. Visually sumptuous, but prone to overstatement, it's the opposite of a kid-friendly IMAX nature documentary.

(Voyage of Time is available in two versions: a feature-length theatrical release narrated by Cate Blanchett, and a Brad Pitt-narrated IMAX cut that's half as long.)

Malick's last few movies, including To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, have raised the hackles of many critics who find the director's style vague and self-indulgent. Voyage of Time won't win over those naysayers, but it at least has a less elliptical, stream-of-consciousness visual style.

Malick's frame of reference remains the suburban Midwest, a place of wide lawns, towering trees, mid-20th-century homes and innocent children. Here, as in The Tree of Life and so many of his films, is where Malick begins his journey.

Standing outside a middle-class home, a young child peers at a flower and a rock as Pitt asks fundamental philosophical questions. How did life begin? Why are we here? Why is anything here?

In Malick's view, the answer lies in the creation of the cosmos, the formation of stars and galaxies, the birth of our planet, then eons of waiting. Volcanic forces replaced by rain and seas; bacteria evolving into ocean creatures; life crawling onto land.

If you're an IMAX fan, or just like watching nature shows on TV, you've seen this kind of material before. Majestic mountains, thunderous rivers, mammals preening, teeming, nurturing. Employing artful special effects, Malick throws in some dinosaurs and "early humans" as well.

Much of the documentary is awash in music, old friends like Beethoven and Bach, newer composers like Arvo Pärt and Simon Franglen. And then there's that narration. "Death—when did it appear?" "The beginning of Need, Will, Self." "Is love true, not a work of Nature?"

Voyage of Time raises important questions about the origins and meaning of life, and places them within some extraordinary footage. Without the burden of constructing a plot around fictional characters, Malick can jump around as much as he likes while assembling a scientific, reasonably coherent explanation for the formation of consciousness.

On the other hand, passages in Voyage of Time can seem obvious, pedestrian, self-evident, not far removed from an old Walt Disney True-Life Adventure. Malick makes few concessions to mainstream viewers. You're either with him as he reimagines evolution, or lost in a welter of impenetrable music, imagery, ideas. At times, particularly when the music and narration drop away and Malick can focus solely on visual montage, his work can be breathtaking.

Not surprisingly, given the participation of the Knights of Columbus, Voyage of Time reaches a positive, upbeat conclusion about life. We are children of the good, we are the light, the end is one with the beginning. We'd all like to believe that's true, but how many viewers will be willing to follow this route?

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