TIFF Review: ‘Voyage of Time’

Terrence Malick delivers his first (and hopefully last) doc

5 mins read

Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey
(Germany, 90 min.)
Dir. Terrence Malick
Narrated by Cate Blanchett
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)


The Golden Raspberry awards, aka the Razzies, offer annual gongs honoring the ‘berry worst’ in filmmaking. The Razzies don’t have a category for documentaries, but Terrence Malick deserves to get “razzed” with a special award for his first (and hopefully last) documentary, Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey. Malick’s latest work is the low point in his illustrious career of evocative and profoundly philosophical filmmaking. Even if one approaches the doc with the measured expectations that his recent string of disappointments demands, Voyage of Time is simply nonsense. This montage of images has the substance of a screensaver. As far as imagery goes, Malick’s doc is the roaring dumpster fire of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Malick’s Beginner’s Guide towards The Meaning of Life uses images of the solar system to evoke the limitlessness of the universe and shots of rocks and water become to give us a hymn to the Earth. Animated dinosaurs span the Malickian musing back to the beginning of time. Some CGI sperm and foeti draw parallels between creation and the dawn of man. Yes, Malick creates the universe in this film and searches for a higher power by land, air, and sea. He doesn’t find it, though, and it’s extremely disappointing to see so little come to fruition in this decades-in-the-making doc.

Voyage of Time seeks meaning with speculative voiceover. Despite Cate Blanchett’s best efforts to sound divine and clairvoyant, Voyage of Time pairs its random images with words like “mother,” “time,” “nature” … and not much else. Repeating “mother” thirty times in the same film doesn’t give it meaning. If anything, Voyage of Time loses its credibility through repetition. The narration actually hampers the potential for this essay film as Malick’s rambling words betray a lack of clear vision.

Malick, perhaps more than any other filmmaker, evokes the presence of higher meaning with wispy shots of nature, like the bountiful shots of grass in the The New World that meditate upon a fresh Eden in the colonial America of Pocahontas and John Smith. Even the infamous “let’s go twirl in the wheat fields” sequences of To the Wonder evoke something through their lyrical beauty. But stripped of narrative, an assortment of visually dazzling shots does not equal poetry. Voyage of Time gels as an empty hodgepodge of pretty things.

Malick’s recent films The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups largely survive on the strength of their editing as the director and his crew shift through a myriad of images to create fleeting tapestries that transcend the worldly actions of the scenes they depict. All this editing, however, has left a lot of material on hard drives and on editing room floors, and Voyage of Time honestly resembles a patchwork of rejected Malick outtakes that were too pretty to waste.

The imagery of Voyage of Time is undeniably marvellous, but Malick does nothing with it. For example, the film offers the novel sight of lava erupting from volcanoes and hardening in the sea. Playing in the same festival as Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno, though, which uses the existence of lava to debate the antipathy of nature, Malick’s pretty lava becomes nothing but hot rocks by comparison. Ditto all the fish and squid that swim in the ocean. There are far better eco docs with underwater cinematography that never appear in festivals because they lack a significant name. Just go to the aquarium.

Voyage of Time ultimately evokes the sense that life is better spent out in nature than sitting in dark rooms on sunny days. Time goes round and round, but it doesn’t get anywhere. Malick’s universe is just a black hole.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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