Sometimes we can be such loyal fools, enthralled by past glories and ever hopeful of their return. I keep watching each new Ridley Scott film with such anticipation, and for decades was just the same with each new Prince album, or John Carpenter movie. Terrence Malick has made such genuinely great films, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line are amongst my all-time favourites and I really do like The Tree of Life: there is something endlessly fascinating about it, if only because it aims so high and just falls short. The idea of a section of that film, which depicted the formation of the universe/Solar System and the beginnings of life on Earth, including the Dinosaurs and the cataclysm that wiped them out, being turned into a full-length documentary film was just so enticing. But…sadly I must say it should have all just remained within that film. Sometimes less is more: funnily enough, that’s possibly very true for much of Malick’s output.
Its taken me a few years to catch up with Voyage of Time, finally importing a German Blu-ray relatively cheap, but alas, I possibly shouldn’t have bothered. Even as a fan and frequent apologist for Malick, I have to admit, this is a pretty poor effort. Pretty and vacuous, its terribly inferior to Godfrey Reggio’s magnificent Koyannisqatsi when it could/should have certainly been equal to it, with something new to say (instead, I have to report that Koyannisqatsi possibly shares so much of Voyage of Time‘s ‘message’ and sentiment but got there decades before and said it much better).
I’m not really even sure what Malick was thinking; we have an irritating, typical-of-Malick-horribly-obtuse Cate Blanchett narration that says nothing, for no reason at all other than, presumably, to have her name on the credits to ‘sell’ the film. Any narrative flow for this voyage through the ages of the universe and Earth is repeatedly derailed by dropped-in sequences of present-day humanity that serve no purpose at all: one moment we are in the present, then back in the past, then back in the present. At least in Reggio’s film the scenes of humanity unwittingly lost in urban cages and horrible jobs etc served some purpose, some commentary on life out of balance.
As one would expect, the film looks very pretty but little more impressive than what we’ve already seen in BBC wildlife documentaries on television, and while the visual effects are quite astonishing at times, without a clear ‘voice’ or narrative to give them purpose, what’s really the point of them at all? There’s nothing here that Kubrick’s 2001 didn’t say much more succinctly and effectively. Maybe Malick finally found he had too much to say, or nothing at all to say. Again, like so many of his recent films.
I had expected to see an expansion of that Tree of Life sequence, showing the Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the wild primeval life of Earth, perhaps a glimpse of mankind and its glories in art and history and then the long slow decline of the universe back to darkness, some kind of cosmological model and perhaps a sense of our small insignificant place within it. I didn’t expect to see a poor man’s Koyannisqatsi. At least that film had meaning; instead Malick’s Voyage has no meaning at all.