Terrence Malick has been working on Voyage of Time for forty years. It is his passion project; his magnum opus. It is also his final descent into self-parody — an earthy, mystical bit of mumbo-jumbo complete with a soulful, nonsensical narration. It is at times quite beautiful to behold — but sometimes we need more than just beautiful imagery and sounds. At times, Voyage of Time feels as if Malick is adapting one of those Nature Sounds CDs people fall asleep to to the big screen.
There are two versions of this film: Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, a 90-minute film narrated by Cate Blanchett. And Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, a shorter, more accessible take on the material narrated by Brad Pitt. I saw Life’s Journey. Perhaps I should’ve stuck around to see the shorter version. Or perhaps I should’ve skipped this entirely.
Look: I love most of Malick’s films. I consider his The New World to be both one of the best films made in the last twenty years, and one of my all-time-favorite movies. I also love Cate Blanchett, a supremely talented actress who brings an almost unearthly charm to every role she takes on. Yet Voyage of Time, a beautiful-looking combo of Malick and Blanchett, left me utterly cold.
There’s no rhyme or reason here. This is simply a nature documentary-style trip through close-ups of bubbling volcanos, endless galaxies and CGI dinosaurs taking strolls on the beach. It all looks great, but so does the same type of footage that pops up on The Discovery Channel or in Ken Burns documentaries about the National Parks. Were it not for the poetic narration, there would almost be no sign of Malick’s fingerprints on this.. A final segment, devoted to the life and customs of primitive man, are the only moments where Malick applies his trademark directorial grace. But by then it’s too little too late.
Blanchett’s narration isn’t helping matters. Malick has her utter the phrase “Mother…” approximately 6000 times, pausing after each utterance as if she’s about to launch into a spoken-word cover of Danzig’s Mother. The script also saddles her with obtuse phrases that come off like she’s reading through the names on a Tarot deck: “The stricken ox! The abandoned child!” And then there are utter head-scratchers like “Shapeless as a cloud!” and “You devour yourself only to give birth yourself again!” I dare you to figure out what any of this means.
Voyage of Time is a dreamy, sleep-inducing film, and perhaps that’s exactly what Malick wanted. The late, great Abbas Kiarostami once said that he didn’t mind if people fell asleep during his films, because “some very good films might prepare you for sleeping or falling asleep or snoozing.” Perhaps that’s what Voyage of Time is: the ultimate snoozing experience. One day this will end up on Netflix, and you can put it on as you drift off to slumber. And what dreams may come! Hopefully those dreams will be more interesting than this.
Voyage of Time is playing at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.