Erratic, ambiguous and unpredictable, the work of director Terence Malick has been typified as much by what he has not done as what he has, with a break of two decades between his second and third films, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, followed by a period of relative productivity with Tree of Life and To the Wonder released within a year of each other, yet Voyage of Time is the project which he has taken over forty years to craft.
Existing in two versions, a forty minute edit created for presentation in IMAX cinemas with narration provided by Brad Pitt with whom Malick had worked with on Tree of Life, it is the complete ninety minute version narrated by Cate Blanchett which has played the festival circuit including the Glasgow Film Festival prior to limited general release.
More abstract than narrative, following in the footsteps of Godfrey Reggio, director of Koyaanisqatsi, and Reggio’s former cinematographer Ron Fricke, director of Baraka and Samsara, Malick has expanded the wordless visual interludes of his recent films to fill the whole, visions of evolving life and changing landscapes, stunningly photographed by Paul Atkins.
From lumps of rock in ribbons of gas coalescing to planetary bodies, from the cataclysm of terrestrial formation in volcanic power, from hydrothermal vents gushing out nutrients to wind shaped sandstone, the sedimentary rock contrasting the hot new rock extruded undersea to form new land masses, Malick explores the birth of planets, of continents, of species.
Similarly, the drifting, pulsing wonder of a jellyfish, a cuttlefish concealed in coral and the intelligence and the curiosity of cephalopods are contrasted with cruelty of bloodsports, children watching as cattle are slaughtered while nearby prayer wheels chime in empty acts of supposed spirituality, the presentation switching from 1:85 to 1:33 in harsh video, humanity set apart from nature, judged less worthy.
From a purely visual perspective Voyage of Time is breathtaking, from the veils of luminous nebulae to the primordial solar system and representations of primitive life as single celled organisms develop organelles, but the the beauty of the abstractions and impressions of Reggio and Fricke was that they played out in silence, a deeply personal experience collectively shared.
Here, rather than the images being interpreted by the viewer from the impression it makes upon them the sporadic utterances tarnish the splendour, the normally majestic Blanchett reduced to a stoned beat poet on her last grubby handful of downers before passing out entirely.
Interrupting rather than enhancing the flow, the words seek to impose a clumsy interpretation rather the nurture a native feeling, producing the uneasy apprehension that the viewer might not be getting the point the director intended, and while Malick may have wished to bridge the gap between the purely abstract works of Reggio and Fricke and his own instead Voyage of Time is life and art deeply out of balance.