Resembling an expansion of the creation sequence from 2011’s The Tree of Life, Voyage of Time is arguably the fullest expression of the cosmic themes that filmmaker Terrence Malick has explored for the last decade. With the exception of occasional snippets of low-grade, full-frame digital video of contemporary urban poverty, the film follows a linear trajectory from the formation of the solar system through the eventual collapse of our sun. Traveling to the corners of the globe to collect beautiful shots of unmolested nature to stand in for the prehistoric world, Malick also employs various effects to evoke the emergence of life on a planet from the primordial soup, such as drips of paint that seem to flower into tendrils of stardust, or a digitally rendered neural network to chart a map of the human brain.
Cate Blanchett’s narration, with repeated intonations aimed at an unspecific mother, can seem like a grotesque self-parody of Malickian voiceover. Then again, sufficient attention has rarely been paid to Malick’s tendency to override his lofty written poetics with contrasting mise-en-scène, and his latest may top even The New World for the gulf between its gentle, abstract words and the chaos of its physical imagery. Underwater volcanoes spew magma that instantly hardens in the sea, creating snakes of rock that burst and splinter from the rapid temps retire fluctuations. Animals and humans alike make brutal kills for their meals. After a reenactment of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs moves the film into the Ice Age, Blanchett asks “mother,” over shots of barren, static ice: “Why did you abandon me?”
Voyage of Time contains numerous moments of profound beauty, such as early humans coating themselves in muddy handprints the craggy and uneven hills of lava-formed surfaces overgrown with grass. By prioritizing time as the active narrative agent, the director further emphasizes the objective beauty of the image, tacitly acknowledging that his fussy editing can only suggest meanings to that which will outlive anyone’s interpretation.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.