Back when the average volcano's work rate put Terrence Malick's own to shame, no grateful film lover could have imagined describing one of his films as 'over-familiar' – a new Malick film was a rare mirage of beauty that you feared might disappear if you looked at it too long. Yet now, with the arrival of the fourth film in six years from the maker of 'Days of Heaven' and 'The Thin Red Line', something of a template has set in: soaring, rapturous camerawork, linked by quasi-spiritual ruminations on nature and grace, delivered via a hushed, reverent voiceover asking impossible questions of an unidentified higher power. Made in collaboration with National Geographic, 'Voyage of Time: Life's Journey' is officially the reclusive director's first wholly non-narrative film. Yet as it begins in darkness, with Cate Blanchett mellifluously reciting, 'Mother... you walked with me in the silence... before there was a world,' it doesn't feel like much of a departure.
Which is not to say there's anything idle or dashed-off about 'Voyage of Time'. It's a sincerely ambitious cosmic address that Malick has apparently been working towards for decades, developing new technological means of expression for the dazzling biosphere it presents on screen, from beach-roaming dinosaurs to an advancing army of underwater crabs to an assortment of iridescently exploding nebulae. The celebrated Creation sequence of Malick's 'The Tree of Life' was a mere teaser for the hallucinatory gorgeousness he presents here. But it turns out it was something of a spoiler, too, leading us to know all too well what to expect. 'Voyage of Time' veritably tongue-bathes the eyeballs with its succession of extravagant images and with its digitally enhanced vision of a natural world that practically tips the scales into unearthliness. But somehow we're never truly surprised by any of its wonders.
That might sound ungrateful or even cynical: when beauty is served up by the spadeful, can't we simply revel in it? Well, we can, and we do. But 'Voyage of Time' has distractingly little to say about the marvellous universe it conceives: four films into this more esoteric phase of his career, his manner of wide-eyed rhetorical inquiry ('Mother, where are you?' 'Mother, what is this world?' 'Mother, did love make me?') is beginning to feel obtusely banal. Admittedly, there's no one you'd rather hear intone this hokum than Blanchett, whose grave, creamy voice almost makes the text seem worthy of the visuals it accompanies. (Brad Pitt, meanwhile, will narrate the film's shorter, Imax-fitted edit.) Malick's ear for aural splendour is as keen as his eye: it's the words that get in the way.