Terrence Malick’s New Documentaries Explore the Beginning of the Universe

“Nothing is like reality.”

By Laura RiceOctober 7, 2016 11:38 am| ,

Anyone familiar with the work of Austin-based director Terrence Malick knows he’s unafraid to tackle big questions. The example you’re probably most familiar with is “Tree of Life.” The 2011 film is not your typical family drama. It looks at the existence of a higher power and the origins of the world.

Malick’s latest film, or films, don’t just scratch the surface of those universal ponderings – they dive right in. Malick created two versions of “Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience.” One is narrated by Brad Pitt. Another, longer version of the film, featuring Cate Blanchett, comes out sometime next year. Both are documentaries – the first time Malick has taken on the genre. But in a way, he’s always been working on this project.

Malick rarely gives interviews. Nicolas Gonda is a producer on the film.

“The very beginning was probably in the earliest stages of Terry’s development as a person and what shaped his mind and inspired his creativity,” Gonda says.

Sarah Green is another producer for the project.

“I know when I first met him, before we even started working on ‘The New World’ together, he was talking about this movie,” Green says. “That was maybe 14 years ago. So it was always part of the conversation and always part of something we knew that we were going to do. It was just a matter of when and how … technology had caught up with his vast brain – and when we had the resources and the time to really focus on it.”

So how do you make a documentary about the beginning of the universe? There isn’t exactly old newsreel footage to pull from.
What the filmmakers didn’t do was just make it up. They consulted physicists, biologists and cosmologists – and made art based on their scientific models.

“[We] put color and made them more fine,” Green says, “each step of the way checking back with the scientists to make sure we weren’t taking it out of the realm of reality but making it to a place where we could understand the sort of glory of it all.”

The result is visually stunning: Whirring colors in the blackness of space. The fiery beginnings of the planet we call Earth. And the microscopic and then massive forms of life that came to inhabit it.

The most stunning part of all is that what you see is not just computer graphics.

“We made a pact that there’d be nothing completely – there would never be a frame of this movie that was completely generated by a computer – ever,” Green says. “Even the galaxy swarming and black holes and all this stuff. There is an element of something natural in there that we shot in some experimental way and folded in – used as the base of a background, used as a planet, used as something.”

It leaves the viewer in wonder of the beauty and asking “Is that real? What is that? Where is that?”

“As early as the early 2000s, we were shooting some of the volcanic activity,” producer Gonda says. “Some imagery even dates back to the 1970s from units that Terry had out in Australia and other places in the world. That was always the mandate – to reach for the real whenever possible. When you go and browse NASA for instance, their image gallery, there’s enough beauty in there to make an entire movie or to make a movie for the rest of your life.”

While the IMAX version of “Voyage of Time” is supposed to be more of a structured account of the evolution of the universe, it’s still much more like a beautiful, visually-engaging poetry recitation.

“Nothing is like reality,” Green says. “Things in nature are more extraordinary than anything you can create.”

But while the film was inspired by big questions, it does aim to highlight some answers.

“The vast majority of our universe, dark matter, dark energy, we still know very little about,” Gonda says. “But now we’re at this point where we can start to understand, more and more, about these planets, these galaxies, how they were formed and where we’re all headed.”

Terrence Malick’s “Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience” begins to hit theaters across Texas this weekend. Green says if you’re interested – that’s really where you should see it.

“If I see somebody watching this on their telephone I’m going to take it out of their hands and throw it against the wall,” she says, laughing. “Because you have to go to an IMAX theater, you have to see it big, you have to hear it loud, you have to feel it in your chest – when your chest rattles at some points. … To me, it stands in for the grandeur of the universe. When you look up at the night sky, there’s nothing bigger and I just think there’s a perfect correlation between the size of the screen and the experience you’ll have.”

There’s no question “Voyage of Time” is an epic achievement – but is it finally the end of Terrence Malick’s quest to tell the story of the universe? Will he return to documentary form again someday or will he stick with narrative films down the line? Those questions, it seems, may be harder to nail down than the history of the cosmos.