As a more lyrical take on material well-covered by two different versions of Cosmos and a thousand “I Fucking Love Science”-related internet memes, Voyage of Time is reasonably engaging. But as the culmination of decades of work on the part of legendary director Terrence Malick, for whom the project was a labor of almost reverent love, the film is a severe letdown. Though it looks exactly as gorgeous on a big screen as Malick’s name will automatically make you expect, the experience as a whole is lacking.
In 90 minutes, Voyage of Time covers the whole of the history of the Universe, from the Big Bang through the formation of the stars, the birth and evolution of life on Earth, and the emergence of humanity. Cate Blanchett’s narration contains no scientific exposition but rather would-be prayer-like poetry on the nature of life and existence, frequently addressing the Earth as “Mother” and wondering just where human beings got it wrong. Digital video snatches of the horrors of modern-day life represent the movie at its lowest. The first images are of skid row residents and feel cringingly exploitative, for example. The binding of the mundane and the divine, something Malick can usually pull off probably without even noticing he’s doing it, is clumsy here.
At its best, Voyage of Time gets around budgetary constraints (generally evident in dinosaurs composed of wonky CGI) with clever visual metaphor. The roiling lava flow of a Hawaii volcano stands in for the Hadean Eon — Earth’s early days as a planet. The Archean then appears as Icelandic waterfalls, which gives way to a Fantasia-esque CG sequence of the first cells birthing within the primordial soup. Though the movie’s philosophical wonderment too often flows in one ear and out the other, the eye is ever-enraptured.
But in spite of such ingenuity, Voyage of Time can’t help but just feel too much like it’s been done before. When Malick first conceived of the film, in the 1970s (then titled “Q” ), it was massively ambitious. Now, people are inured to awesome imagery of the majesty of the Universe. Even Malick’s earlier work beat this to the punch. The “Birth of the Universe” sequence in The Tree of Life, which uses elements he had gathered over his many decades working on Q, does basically the same thing that this documentary does but in a scant yet incredible 15 minutes. Little of this doc’s grasping for truth can grab what that film holds tight.