Terrence Malick’s “Voyage Of Time” (2016)

This article is excerpted from “A SpaceTime Odyssey”, Part 3 of our video essay series on Terrence Malick

Notable Festivals: Venice, Toronto

Part of the stated mission of “The Directors Series” is watching a given filmmaker’s output in chronological order, so as to better chart his or her artistic development. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and Terrence Malick’s experimental documentary VOYAGE OF TIME (2016)  is one particularly apt exception.  Sandwiched between the release of KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015) and SONG TO SONG (2017), VOYAGE OF TIME bears such an undeniable association with 2011’s THE TREE OF LIFE that one simply cannot fully explore either work without the context of the other.  Indeed, the majority of VOYAGE OF TIME’s footage was captured at the same time as THE TREE OF LIFE’s corresponding creation sequences, suggesting that the two works continually informed one another throughout the course of production.  VOYAGE OF TIME shares THE TREE OF LIFE’s extensive slate of producing talent, boasting the oversight of Grant Hill, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad, and Dede Gardner, as well as his regular producing partners Sarah Green and Nicolas Gonda.  Though this team had been actively producing VOYAGE OF TIME for the preceding 12 years on a budget of $12 million, Malick’s personal development efforts stretched back even further— both VOYAGE OF TIME and THE TREE OF LIFE were outgrowths of his ambition passion project “Q”, which he intended as his follow-up to DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) before subsequently abandoning it and commencing his two-decade absence from cinema screens.  

Malick had always described his vision for VOYAGE OF TIME as “one of his greatest dreams” (2)(3), and indeed, there were so many points throughout development, production, and release where said dream could have gone unrealized.  Thankfully, not only does VOYAGE OF TIME exist, but it does so in no less than three different variants, each one endeavoring to expand on THE TREE OF LIFE’s cosmic creation sequences with a celebrative foray into the evolution of life and the universe.  Indeed, VOYAGE OF TIME plays very much like THE TREE OF LIFE, had the 1950’s Waco and modern-day Dallas narrative threads been excised completely.  The general thrust of story is the same across all three versions, featuring stunning landscape and wildlife photography shot by famed nature cinematographer Paul Atkins, as well as evocative liquid physics and spinning dish effects by SFX supervisor Dan Glass working under Douglas Trumbull.  Comprised of a mix of 35mm film, 65mm IMAX film, and high-resolution digital, VOYAGE OF TIME adopts an omniscient view that effortlessly slides along an infinite scale, capturing scenes as minute as cells dividing as effortlessly as the the celestial birth of gargantuan star systems.  Majestic magic-hour aerials and swooping underwater camerawork document the evolution of life on Earth, doubling down on THE TREE OF LIFE’s controversial inclusion of dinosaurs by adding even more of them in all their dodgy CGI-rendered glory.    

Despite telling the same story, the three cuts of VOYAGE OF TIME differ rather wildly in their respective technical presentations.   The first version, running forty minutes and dubbed “The IMAX Experience”, is no doubt Malick’s intended exhibition format— if not his ideal length or narrative style.  Presented in the square 1.43:1 frame unique to IMAX, this first version’s comparatively-shorter running time forces Malick to dwell on said creation sequences almost exclusively, conscripting THE TREE OF LIFE’s Brad Pitt to provide a rather straightforward voiceover for narrative context.  The limitations of IMAX as an exhibition format — such as shorter run times demanded by the sheer size of the 70mm IMAX gauge when spooled up into reels, or the limited number of dedicated IMAX venues — prompted Malick to generate a second, longer cut dubbed “LIFE’S JOURNEY”.  

Running ninety minutes and presented in the conventional 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this version is easily the most Malick-ian in tone and style.  Cate Blanchett, fresh off two collaborations with Malick on KNIGHT OF CUPS and SONG TO SONG, delivers a lyrical, introspective narration in a hushed, prayerful tone.  Far more than just an “extended edition”, “LIFE’S JOURNEY” expands on footage seen in the “IMAX Experience” with low-resolution digital video footage presented in the square 1.33:1 frame, speaking to Malick’s latter-day interest in the juxtaposition of various formats and visual textures with the blown-out contrast and seared colors of cheap consumer video.  These sequences paint an observational, “slice-of-life” portrait of modern society in all its vibrant color and decrepit squalor, subverting Malick’s pristine celluloid images with chunky video resembling a home movie shot while on vacation. Another narrative movement find early man at his most primitive, forging a meager hunter-gatherer existence in a harsh, unwelcoming environment.  Some sources claim this footage actually dates back to the late 1970’s, back when Malick was developing the film in its “Q” incarnation—- however, this sequence (which was allegedly shot on 35mm film) admittedly looks a little too pristine for its supposed age, and the roaming, restless manner in which it’s shot feels too much in-line with his latter-day aesthetic to have credibly followed right after DAYS OF HEAVEN.  

While these two versions are the ones commonly referred to when one talks of VOYAGE OF TIME, there is yet a third version, dubbed “The IMAX Experience in Ultra Widescreen”.  This version — arguably Malick’s preferred cut of the picture — drops the narration entirely, in favor of an impressionistic soundscape comprised entirely of music and sound effects.  The footage was also re-scanned at a staggering 11,000 lines of resolutions and re-composed into a virtually-unrivaled ultra-wide frame boasting dimensions of 3.6:1. Despite receiving the widest theatrical release of the three variants, this version is arguably the most elusive, considering its extremely short exhibition window and the total radio silence concerning an eventual home video release.  

Created under the auspices of a “documentary”, VOYAGE OF TIME nevertheless embodies the same experimental artistic stylings that Malick brings to his narrative work.  This is especially true of “LIFE’S JOURNEY”, anchored by Blanchett’s prayer-like voiceover which, like the O’Brien family in THE TREE OF LIFE or Pocahontas in 2005’s THE NEW WORLD, invokes creation and the natural world using the humanizing, familial term of “Mother”.  This same strain of secular spirituality runs through Malick’s larger body of work, embracing nature’s maternal qualities and the delicate harmony of interconnected ecosystems.  Indeed, Malick sees the divine in the fragile balance of creation— a long, wordless stretch finds erupting volcanoes giving rise to coal-black landmasses, the slow-moving waves of orange magma stopped and cooled by a frigid ocean perfectly calibrated to oppose its burn.  Together, these two opposing forces build up the earth that supports complex life through the millennia, eventually culminating in the massive, glittering cityscapes of modern human civilization. Even these artificial, man-made structures take on a symbiotic relationship with the natural world, sickening it via pollution and decay.  Malick has long used the visual contrasts between industrial and agrarian landscapes to better explore the theme of “innocence lost”, likening mankind’s aspirations towards industrialization to Adam & Eve’s casting out from the biblical Garden of Eden. Since his return from a two-decade filmmaking sabbatical, Malick has increasingly explored this theme through the prism of human suffering and misery.  This is where “LIFE’S JOURNEY”’s digital video vignettes achieve resonance, with clips shot in Los Angeles’ Skid Row particularly standing out as a display of the ravages of man’s corruption— disease, addiction, mental rot, and extreme poverty.  Nevertheless, Malick still presents these people as fundamentally human, capturing their misfortune with a compassionate eye. They too are the children of creation, and their estrangement from its life-sustaining purity is a development to be lamented— and if possible, rectified.

Without any narrative attachments to a central character, VOYAGE OF TIME becomes perhaps the purest expression of Malick’s thematic fascinations as a filmmaker— a towering chronicle spanning all of time and space in its exploration of cosmic creation and the evolution of life on Earth.  Following the course of nearly all his post-hiatus outpost, VOYAGE OF TIME spent an interminable amount of time in post-production, lagging behind THE TREE OF LIFE’s release by five years despite most of its photography occurring simultaneously.  The positive critical reviews out of festivals like Venice and Toronto didn’t quite align with a mixed reception by audiences— an outcome that speaks to Malick’s polarizing status within contemporary cinema.  Distributor Broad Green Pictures, the now-defunct company who also brought KNIGHT OF CUPS and SONG TO SONG to cinema screens, wisely programmed VOYAGE OF TIME at specialty IMAX theaters in nature & science centers rather than conventional multiplexes.  This strategy admittedly would limit the film’s box office potential, but it also reinforced a kind of academic pedigree usually accorded to nature documentaries.  If we’re being honest with ourselves, VOYAGE OF TIME was never going to be a blockbuster anyway— one could argue Broad Green’s approach was sound in its decision to embrace the rarefied air of exclusivity that a limited specialty release would provide. Regardless of reception, the film’s release represents the fulfillment of one of Malick’s longtime dreams as a filmmaker; the culmination of decades of thought and physical effort, molded in the shape of a once-in-a-lifetime work of cinematic art.  Since Broad Green imploded, VOYAGE OF TIME’s fate in the home video market has languished in the limbo of uncertainty— if you didn’t catch it in theaters, your best bet as of this writing is to cop the Japanese Blu Ray release on eBay.  Hopefully the Criterion Collection will swoop in and provide a comprehensive North American release, but until then, Malick enthusiasts should still make the effort to seek out VOYAGE OF TIME— both as an essential companion piece to THE TREE OF LIFE and a thought-provoking experience in its own right.  

VOYAGE OF TIME: “LIFE’S JOURNEY” is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Japanese home video label GAGA.


Produced by: Sophokles Tasioulis, Sarah Green, Grant Hill, Brad Pitt, Bill Poland, Dede Gardner, and Nicolas Gonda

Written by: Terrence Malick

Director Of Photography: Paul Atkins

Production Designer: Jack Fisk

Edited by: Rehmar Nizar Ali, Keith Fraase