Take a galactic, interconnected journey with 'Voyage of Time'

A rendering of the end of Earth from Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience

A rendering of the end of Earth from Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience © 2016 IMAX Corporation

IMAX movies tend to be exercises in spectacle rather than substance. Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience is something else entirely.

This is a documentary about nothing less than our celestial origins and the past, present, and future of mankind. Terrence Malick’s long-in-the-making project is like a visit to the planetarium curated by one of our greatest living filmmakers.

Brad Pitt narrates the 45-minute opus, which is marked by stunning imagery of this planet and beyond: unfathomably distant galaxies, daily life in the 21st century, cavemen, even dinosaurs. Rarely has an argument for the interconnectedness of all things been so fleet of foot and ambitious all at once.

Next year, the film will be seen in a different format: Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey. This version runs 90 minutes and features voiceover narration by Cate Blanchett in lieu of Pitt. Life’s Journey is a more searching, at times meandering experience, one likely to appeal to Malick diehards as opposed to families looking to kill an hour with the kiddos at the zoo.

The dual-release almost feels like a one-for-you, one-for-me arrangement, as though Malick got to make his version so long as he agreed to pare it down into something more palatable to normies. Life’s Journey might have a higher ceiling, but also a lower floor; in always swinging for the fences, it sometimes strikes out.

The IMAX Experience, meanwhile, gets on base consistently. This dyed-in-the-wool Malick acolyte loved both iterations, but most will find the IMAX version more than enough.

Pitt’s narration strikes a balance between scientific and ruminative: “Why was there something rather than nothing?” he’ll ask; Malick then answers, in his own way, by offering glimpses of everything from the first stars to the first creatures to emerge from the ocean and walk on land.

The filmmaker, who’s demonstrated time and again in films like Days of Heaven and The New World that he has a poet’s soul, makes the death of every small being feel both tragic and necessary. Everything that’s happened in the universe led to us being where we are now. It may not be the best of all possible worlds, but something is preferable to nothing.

These renderings of outer space are striking, but the film’s most stunning sequence takes place in the sea as seals and seagulls converge on the same school of fish for an underwater feeding frenzy. The birds crash through the waves, breach the surface and then try again; this controlled chaos is all seen from below and nearly silent.

(Side note: For all the abyssal sea creatures on display, no animal on the planet looks stranger on a 70-foot IMAX screen than the ostrich. Seriously, look at these fucking things.)

In the last five years, Malick has become less filtered — as well as more prolific — with small-scale, seemingly autobiographical projects like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups revealing his deepest concerns. If you’re curious about the man behind the movies, lines like “Is love, too, not a work of nature?” may be as close as we come to a personal statement.

There’s often something intimidating about documentaries of this nature, as so many of them serve to remind us mere mortals of our cosmic insignificance. Not so in Voyage of Time. Watching it can feel like having your hand held as you drift off to sleep under the stars — there’s a sense of interconnectedness that’s genuinely comforting.

Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience
Directed by Terrence Malick
Opens Friday, Minnesota Zoo