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Europa and Jupiter
“Voyage of Time” makes use of cosmic imagery like this view of Europa with Jupiter’s Great Red Spot as a backdrop. (Credit: Broad Green Pictures)

Is it possible to create a visual gospel, to be seen on a movie screen rather than read from a parchment? If so, that’s what filmmaker Terrence Malick has created in “Voyage of Time.”

The 40-minute IMAX documentary is in its first week of release at theaters across the country, including the Boeing IMAX Theater at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. There’s also a 90-minute, 35mm version that’s coming soon.

“Voyage of Time” is the culmination of a decades-long dream for Malick, who has directed films ranging from “Badlands” to “The Thin Red Line” to “The Tree of Life.”  This movie is something completely different, drawing upon computer-generated imagery and nature-documentary footage to tell the 13.8-billion-year tale of creation in almost religious terms.

“Why was there something rather than nothing?” narrator Brad Pitt asks as the Big Bang unfolds. In a reference to the dark matter that dominates our universe, Pitt observes that “we and all our world are but the tip of some vast iceberg.”

 

Long stretches are devoted to the creation of the solar system, of Earth, and the cellular genesis that took place in our planet’s primordial oceans. “When did dust become life?” Pitt intones. Species rise and fall. Computer-generated dinosaurs rule the earth, until an asteroid streaks through the skies to end their reign.

Somehow, it’s fitting that humans strut upon the movie’s stage only intermittently, and mostly in the film’s final minutes. Aboriginal Australians play the part of early humans, cooperating, then clashing. In a matter of seconds, the movie fast-forwards to today’s mega-cities – and tomorrow’s cosmos.

The true gospel isn’t in the narration, but in the imagery that washes over you from the 60-foot-tall screen. The creation of the universe’s cosmic web is based on simulations from a supercomputer. Cinematographers harvested imagery from Hawaii’s lava fields and beneath the sea. Some of the special effects were created using magnetized ferrofluids or globs of marmalade rather than computerized fakery.

Is the film scientifically accurate? “Voyage of Time” shouldn’t be used as a textbook – or, for that matter, as a gospel to live by. Rather, regard it as a creation saga for the 21st century: grounded in science, but not bounded by it.

For more about the science behind “Voyage of Time,” check out this Q&A with Harvard Professor Andrew Knoll, the film’s chief science adviser; this Q&A with researchers from the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology; and this PDF guide for educators.

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