“They should have sent a poet,” Jodie Foster's teary-eyed astronaut says as she gazes upon the glory of space in Contact. It took nearly 20 years, but Terrence Malick has taken it upon himself to answer that call with Voyage of Time. Not every line rhymes, and some privilege sound over sense — anyone who's dismissed his recent work as woo-woo posturing will have much to pounce on here. But as the filmmaker retreats further into cinematic territory where only his most ardent devotees are likely to follow, he has hit on the kind of sentiments that make you feel as though the universe is reaching out for a cosmic embrace.
The long-gestating project has been split in two versions: Life's Journey runs 90 minutes, with typically ruminative narration by Cate Blanchett; The IMAX Experience (which I have not seen) is a brisk 45, with Brad Pitt providing more explanatory voice-over. If you've seen The Tree of Life and remember its celestial cutaways, imagine an entire documentary composed of nothing else — for his first foray into nonfiction, Malick has finally gone full Attenborough.
Many filmmakers (and musicians, and writers) have bemoaned the increasing disconnect between mankind and Mother Earth, but few have done it with such grandeur. It probably would be accurate to describe much of this footage as something like Tree of Life B-roll — Voyage of Time is a kind of companion piece to it — but who cares? Malick's latest is marked by some of the most stunning imagery to hit the screen in years, like a feature-length artist's rendition of the known universe. Entire sequences elapse without Blanchett's wistful narration, though Sunday-morning church organs frequently pick up the slack; the primary aim here is to create an experiential depiction of the birth of everything.
When she does speak, Blanchett directly addresses the planet (or God, or both) in much the same way that Sean Penn's character directly addressed his deceased brother (or God, or both) in The Tree of Life. Some of her narration sounds like a neighbor with a Jill Stein bumper sticker cornering you at a party to talk about healing crystals, but when it hits the right beats it's almost transcendent. Her words accompany images that take us light-years into space and miles beneath the sea; laymen (like me) will sometimes wonder whether the abyssal sea creatures we're seeing are even real. Malick, whose most fanciful digression to date has been Tree of Life’s much-discussed dinosaur sequence, stops short of inserting extraterrestrials into the celestial scenes. He does, however, indulge the dino lovers among us once more — though now they're less allegorical and more historical.
Voyage of Time looks at life through both telescope and microscope, IMAX camera and iPhone lens. A rendering of the asteroid that ended those dinosaurs' time on Earth gives way to the documentary aftermath of a bombing in the Middle East; as ever, Malick seeks to be the great equalizer — one thing leads seamlessly into another, with single-celled organisms no less significant to his project than the crab nebula. By presenting everything on a cosmically level playing field, Malick has made the rare film about the enormity of the universe that won't make you feel like an insignificant speck of space dust.