“‘Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?’—this is obviously the first of all questions.”
— Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life has already become a cinematic classic, widely included by critics in the pantheon of “greatest films of all time.” But it was divisive when it first came out, earning jeers by some at its Cannes premiere and sparking a well-publicized phenomenon of walkouts during its U.S. theatrical run. Most people tended to walk out during the audacious moment near the beginning of Life when Malick pauses from his narrative to take the audience on a 20-minute tour of the history of the cosmos, from its birth to the dinosaurs to the dawn of human civilization.
Lest it feel superfluous in the context of a film that is ostensibly about a Texas family in the 1950s, Malick sets this sequence to Preisner’s mournful Lacrimosa and pairs it with voiceover probing God on questions of suffering and evil. The sequence immediately follows Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) learning of her middle son’s death and is set up as her dream-like struggle with a Creator who is puzzlingly sovereign over both life and death. It’s an abstract, beautiful, and challenging lament that encapsulates the film’s worshipful awe and spiritual unsettledness.
Voyage of Time and The Tree of Life
Malick’s latest film, Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, takes the idea of this sequence, removes it from the context of a narrative film, and expands upon it both visually and experientially (hence the IMAX). That the 45-minute “documentary” has a crucial relationship with The Tree of Life is underscored by the fact that its narrator, Brad Pitt, starred in Life as Mr. O’Brien, the gruff 1950s disciplinarian who embodied one half of the film’s “nature/grace” tension.
Pitt’s voice in Voyage—uttering lines like “How was it made? The good you love?” and “Look. Listen. What is it? This miracle. This gift.”—feels of the same mind as his character in Life, who ended the film in a place of awe and humility: “Look: the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.” Voyage, then, is nothing if not a look at the glory around us in nature, a hymn to God’s general revelation.
Voyage and Philosophy
Voyage is a short but sprawling cantata that functions as a sort of Cliff’s Notes capstone to Malick’s 45-year filmmaking career. In 45 minutes, it covers the entirety of history, from the birth of the universe to its death, as well as most of the big questions and metaphysical musings we’ve come to expect from Malick (and which have been pondered by humans since time immemorial).
Why is there something instead of nothing? Is there purpose in suffering? Does death “lead life forward”? Is love an evolutionary process? What is being and time?
Malick’s education in philosophy (Harvard and Oxford), especially in Kierkegaard and Heidegger, means these questions flow out of who he is as a philosopher-poet. He adorns the film’s aesthetic in voiceovers alongside classical music; in Dostoevsky allusions and biblical language (e.g., “From out of nothing, the beginning,” “When did dust become life?”).
Things Malick Loves
Nature. Literature. Art. The Bible. These are things Malick loves, and his Voyage is as much a tale about the world as it’s a summary of how the director’s personal passions guide his way of seeing.
Seeing is one of Malick’s major preoccupations. His art foregrounds perception and forces audiences to see the world in a new way. Perhaps this is why Pitt’s first words in Voyage are, “My child, what do you see?”
We see much in Voyage, though we’re not always sure what it is. With the help of numerous visual artists and science consultants, Malick shows the manifold wonder of natural phenomena in ways our senses can hardly process. But interspersed between quickly-moving, indecipherable images are slower, cinematic vistas, contemplative wide shots, and ponderous zooms into mountains and waterfalls and black holes. Malick wants to give us the mental space to process the images and ideas on the enormous screen before us.
Do Stars Really Sing?
With Voyage, Malick bridges the worlds of science and faith by way of art. His film is not a secular ode to the glories of nature, but a contemplative liturgy that revels in the artfulness of creation, being, and time, thus giving praise to the Artist behind it all. This is clear in Pitt’s voiceover when, early on, the cosmos are described a way that echoes Psalm 19:1 and Job 38:7: “The first stars, singing.”
Do stars really sing? To whom are they singing? In Malick’s world, every natural thing is part of an angelic choir singing praises to the Being who holds all being together, guiding the movement of time and working ever so slowly and methodically (at least from our finite perspective) to add brushstrokes and layers and color to the canvas. “Eons perfecting a leaf, a stone,” Pitt observes at one point in the film, marveling at an Artist who’d spend billions of years on the intricacies of seemingly insignificant corners of the composition.
For Malick, nature as divinely guided art forms the backdrop for his theodicy. All of Malick’s films are interested in how sin, evil, and suffering figure into the meaning of the universe. How do we make sense of a world that sometimes feels like hell but is so unmistakably haunted by heaven? Why does the world’s imperfection, the “lack” we feel so deeply, lead us to be homesick for the heavenly, the transcendent? In what sense is the Artist sovereign over suffering and evil? In Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) the question is posed this way: “Darkness and light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?”
Voyage ponders it similarly—“Light, dark. Things opposite, bound together.”—suggesting the asteroid hitting earth (and killing off dinosaurs) as one example of a seeming injustice that nevertheless is part of a plan. After a long and largely lifeless ice age, “the sun ascends.” New life emerges. The earth resurrects.
Malick sees in the voyage of time a glorious interplay of darkness and light, nature and grace. Far from random or accidental, this is an intentional dynamic that moves history forward. “From the beginning, cooperation plays as great a part as competition in the unfolding of life,” we hear as we watch images of animals co-existing in family and also killing one another. For Malick, “natural selection” is only half the story. Alongside evolution there’s a divine hand at work.
When prehistoric man first shows up in Voyage, near the end of the film, the story reaches a climax. In the water’s surface the man recognizes the image he sees as himself. Self-awareness. Imago Dei. In the next scenes, we see the beginnings of prehistoric culture, clothing, dance. Then, perhaps the most jarring and brilliant cut in the film, we move from the prehistoric dawning of humanity in one image, to a flyover shot of the glowing Dubai skyline at night, complete with the towering Burj Khalifa. A hint at Babel? Man’s brilliance and hubris in one image.
Voyage and the Christian Viewer
Though some Christian audiences will be uncomfortable with the film’s evolutionary assumptions, Malick himself sees no conflict between belief in an Artist/Creator and the processes Voyage depicts. His approach to theistic evolution feels similar to Francis Collins (The Language of God), whose work on the human genome underscored to him that science and faith should not be pit against each other but are natural allies.
If the worshipful, metaphysical undertones of the narration in Voyage are not sufficient evidence that Malick’s work here is as much theological as it is scientific, the classical music selections he pairs with the images of God’s “canvas” underscore the connection. Employing sacred music like Haydn’s “The Creation,” Bach’s “Mass in B Minor,” Poulenc’s “Gloria,” Arvo Pärt, “Te Deum,” and Mahler’s “Resurrection,” Malick makes clear that this is less like a Nova episode than an evensong service in an IMAX cathedral.
Nonetheless, some Christian viewers may be disappointed that Voyage is less overtly Christian than The Tree of Life. True enough, Jesus is absent. But Voyage remains a radical, countercultural challenge to the naturalism and atheism that sadly dominate the scientific world. Malick’s film is undeniably breathtaking and awe-inspiring, and the most hardened atheist will have a hard time sitting through it without at least pondering the metaphysical questions it raises. If Malick’s film plants seeds of theism in the minds of secular viewers (and it must), the church should celebrate. The Christian gospel can and hopefully will come later. Malick’s film is a work of pre-evangelism, softening the hearts of skeptics, re-enchanting the minds of materialists, and making the buffered existence of our secular age a little more porous.
This is an important task, and art is well suited for it. In Voyage, Malick offers a master class not only in how art can shake the foundations of unbelief, but also in how it can rebuild wonder, worship, and mystery amid the rubble of modernity.