“Voyage of Time” is in many ways an extension of the breathtaking twenty minute or so sequence from “The Tree of Life” showing the development of the universe and the birth of life on Earth. Where in “The Tree of Life” that sequence played off the themes and characters of that film, the entirety of “Voyage of Time” is untethered from narrative or character in that sense. It follows the universe’s own narrative, of sorts, from beginning to end, but there isn’t really a human throughline the way even Malick’s more esoteric work like “Knight of Cups” or “To the Wonder” always has.
Holding up the film in reference to other Malick works is one way to make some sort of story out of it – notice how the sun is deconstructed and destroyed here when it more or less plays the role of god in his other films, elusive in that golden hour his films are so often in, but still bathing the world and its people in glorious beauty, offering sustenance and guidance of a sort to the world even when unseen. Where “Knight of Cups” chronicled a search for meaning, “Voyage of Time” is in some ways presented without meaning; it’s deceptively straightforward, massive in scope, so massive it loses the nuances that Malick’s other films hold even when pulled back to the most macro of senses (how much one matters or not in the grand scheme of the universe in “The Tree of Life”, the question of whether nature is inherently destructive just like humanity in “The Thin Red Line”, etc.).
It’s no coincidence the film perks up towards the end when humans finally populate the Earth and we follow a band of humans navigating the young Earth, actual characters played by actual actors. There’s identifiable emotion there. The more abstract themes at play, that constant endurance for more, are harder to tack onto when just played out in nature or earlier life forms. A moment when a dinosaur looks despondently into the camera like a typical soul-searching Malick protagonist seems to displace his usual concerns and journies out of the realm of humanity and into life and nature in general, but everything is presented so broadly it’s difficult to grasp onto.
Sometimes that confusion plays well into what the film is doing though, like the surely intended vagueness on whether many visuals are of microscopic biological elements, or enormous celestial, astronomical elements. The film is always a visual feast. But at times it feels more like a technical exercise than any sort of story. Taken as a documentary it’s of very high standard, taken as a Malick film it lacks the strength of both his more abstract and more conventional films. Malick excels in telling stories in new and strange ways, uncommon to the medium, but they are always stories. Not so much here, but perhaps that wasn’t the point anyway. Three and a half meteors, and a cityscape.