Year: 2016 | Rating:
Well, I finally got my hands on a copy of Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, and thus I have now seen every feature-length film that Terrence Malick has made during his fifty-year career. To be honest, I kind of wish that I was able to mark the occasion with a film that I enjoyed a little more.
This film is generally considered a “full-length” cut of its 45-minute-long companion piece, Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary, but they are actually quite different films in their tone and messages. Yes, they share much of the same footage, but whereas the IMAX cut feels very much like a visual and thematic extension of Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life, Life’s Journey feels much more at home with the cynical and less-positive trio of films that followed, To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2016) and Song to Song (2017). And frankly, this is a big part of the reason why I much preferred the shorter cut to this version.
From the first few minutes, the thesis of this film is clear: Humanity has lost its way, and nature appears to be wounded, possibly beyond healing. And yet, Malick paints a very paradoxical portrait of nature: creation often appears to be destruction. Volcanos erupt in chaos only to leave newly-formed land in their wake. Rivers carve through rock only to create valleys and canyons. Astroids from space destroy almost all life on Earth, and yet new life sprouts in the aftermath. Even from the very beginnings of our Universe, it was the violence of cataclysmic explosions that allowed for the existence of all things. Whether humanity is the volcano or the land, the river or the valley, the astroid or the rebirth is left up to interpretation, but the message is clear: Nature has a way of healing itself, and the destruction of one thing always leads to the creation of another.
The problem is that this message is delivered within the first ten minutes of Life’s Journey, and Malick doesn’t seem to have much else to say on the matter. Instead, the remaining 80 minutes of this film consist of Cate Blanchett asking the same questions over and over (“What is this world?”, “What are you?”, “What is your purpose?”) without any real reflection on those questions. Sure, the imagery is beautiful, but it pains me to say that this is the first film of Malick’s that lives up to his critics’ claims that his work lacks true philosophical depth. Malick’s distinct style works best when he explores introspective questions with answers that the audience can find from within themselves, but here, he makes constant pleas to some unknown “Mother” (Mother Nature? A female God? Some combination of the two?), asking questions that don’t have any possible answers. It just endless inquisition without any clear sense of purpose.
I’m also not thrilled with the choice of images that Malick used to represent humanity, particularly the use of Middle Eastern conflicts to portray the chaos of our race. Malick also fixates on racial minorities when depicted the “less fortunate” at the beginning of the film, then at the end of the film, the family that is shown as a culmination of evolution is a white family, photographed in calm settings, in clean clothes, with beautiful lighting and cinematography typical of Malick’s style. I don’t know if this juxtaposition between humans of different races is necessarily intentional, but it’s certainly noticeable, and it is definitely not a good thing to have stick out in a film that is otherwise pretty unremarkable.
Overall, I have to say that Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey is definitely one of my least favorite of Terrence Malick’s films, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to see the IMAX cut before this one, because it’s frankly a much better film. This one is extremely hard to find, so unless you’re a Malick completionist like me, I don’t necessarily recommend going through the trouble of seeking it out.
Runtime: 1 hr. 30 min.
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Theo Bongani Ndyalvane