The IMAX presentation of Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time isn’t for you.
It’s for your children or your nieces and nephews or for the kid down the hall whose afternoon galloping disturbs your power nap. Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience is a children’s book about the origin of the universe and development of life blown up to IMAX proportions and graced with Terrence Malick’s distinctly Christian perspective and acumen for visual poetry.
The film’s narration (performed by Brad Pitt in the IMAX presentation) is addressed to a child, and like Sean Penn’s city-wandering-architect’s rumination anchors The Tree of Life, Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience is rooted in the experience of a little girl examining a leaf in an overgrown, vacant lot near some metropolis. I believe it is Austin, though the pop-up office complex in the background could be anywhere. It’s certainly Texas though – I recognize the flora from my years spent surveying around the state during and immediately after college. That time in my life was the first time the land became means to an economic end, something to be parceled, razed, and built upon. There was a sadness there for me. I was grateful for the work—it payed for school—but I couldn’t be part of that activity indefinitely.
My favorite days spent surveying were not the ones my crew spent hacking with machetes through stands of cottonwood saplings. Rather, they were the ones we spent simply exploring vast acreages looking for property corners hidden beneath countless years of Prairies and Lake region growth. Poison ivy hung like curtains from the pecan trees; Scissortail flycatchers and Bobwhites startled us with their ovations; wild blackberry vines clutched appreciatively at the cloth of our jeans; pollen flooded our eyes – I never felt more a part of the natural world, more welcome, more loved by what’s wild.
Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience seeks to impart that same feeling of connection. The film’s aim is to instill in young viewers an understanding of the universe based on community. Typical science documentaries that trace the progress of the universe in this way—adopting the expansive, eon-upon-eon, evolutionary explanation—capitulate to an understanding of life’s development centered on competition. Malick certainly sees the struggle and puzzles over the senselessness of darkness and death, such as when he and director of photography Paul Atkins film a seal maliciously ripping apart a fish. But then Malick chooses to see the cooperative activity of life as well, such as when he follows the seal scene with a pair of whales caring for one another. He insists that mutual affection and co-productive acts are the true stuff of life. He wants us to join in that work. He wants us to love.
If you haven’t seen many “origin of the universe” films like this one, you wouldn’t immediately recognize how revolutionary this is. These kinds of science center films are a preoccupation of mine. I view them often, and I even attended a fulldome film festival last year devoted to these kinds of movies. Over the course of two and half days, I watched over forty planetarium films from around the world. Almost all of them are merely descriptive, demonstrating the development of the universe but steering clear of any qualitative judgements of it. Malick’s story about the making of all that is is moral.
Last year, I lamented that there weren’t Christians making these kind of universe-explaining films. And now here’s Malick, our most lauded and accomplished Christian filmmaker, doing just that. Yes, his vision includes evolution, and if your understanding of life’s development forbids that interpretation, you won’t gain much from watching this film. But if your faith is big enough to read Genesis poetically and allow that God works steadily through the processes that science describes as well as suddenly in the miraculous, then find a few kids, head to your nearest science center, and sit in awe of the cosmos God is still creating. On the way home, talk together about how you can join in, about how you are already involved in that great story. Let Terrence Malick teach you how to love in a way you maybe haven’t loved before. Let the eyes of a child open your eyes to the majesty of the world around you.