“DEAR Child, I remember, when I was young, how at night, I’d go out on the lower road, look up at the stars and wonder where we came from, and how things got set up, anyway — and where it all goes. . . Do you wonder, too?”
Thus begins Terrence Malick’s journey of discovery, Voyage of Time (not yet classified), into the origins and continuity of the cosmos. It is a documentary celebrating the Creation. The information has been supplied by a bevy of academics from the world of astrophysics. This has then been translated into impressive visuals of outer space (courtesy of NASA) and seamlessly married to equally special effects. As the film’s narrator, Brad Pitt, says, “Everywhere it can, life rushes in.” From the Big Bang, through the emergence of plant life and sentient beings, there is cause to wonder.
This isn’t Malick’s first attempt at inspiring awe. Historically, though, it has been through feature films. In his 1978 movie Days of Heaven, he treated us to an earth full of beauty. By the time of The Tree of Life (Arts, 22 July 2011) — a story of human suffering — he sets it in the context of the creation of the world. Voyage of Time is stronger on how the universe was created than why. It doesn’t really ask any questions about whether we sufficiently harmonise with the glories of nature on display here.
This is surprising, because Malick is a man of deep faith. He clearly hopes that we can share in the wonder, but without giving us sight of those elements of nature red in tooth and claw which are problematic to those who struggle to aspire to the director’s Christian beliefs. The narrative is minimal, and there is no overt reference to a divine creator. Implicitly, though, we are left in no doubt that there is one. The soundtrack abounds in sacred music. On the one hand, we hear snatches of Haydn’s The Creation along with Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. On the other, there’s acknowledgement of our fallenness in need of redemption with Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Da Pacem, Domine (“Give us peace, Lord”) by Arvo Pärt.
At one point, Pitt asks “What is nature, this inexhaustible giver?” It is something of an acknowledgement of Blake’s question about the tiger’s fearful symmetry: “did he who made the Lamb make thee?”. Malick is also in debt to that poet for another reason. There is a recurring shot of a little girl wandering (wondering?) among grassland adjacent to high-rise flats, picking blooms; a none too subtle plea for us “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower . . .”.
The fact is that, on balance, Voyage of Time is, in effect, mainly about God’s grandeur: a hymn of praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is not quite the whole story of salvation.
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