The first tick on the Malick checklist comes as Cate Blanchett's voice is heard over a black screen. "Mother?" she utters in what will be a series of increasingly impertinent questions all addressed to…who? Mother Earth? Gaia? The Catholic God in drag? Are the questions addressed to the apparently mentally ill and indigent street women who are paraded before us in lo-fi video? A bunch of modern day ethnographic portraits are given in this phone camera format interspersed throughout the film: refugees, religious ceremonies, the ritual slaughtering of animals. With this mobile phone footage, Malick avoids the charge of aestheticising poverty, but it also visually segregates these people from the main business of the film, which is a potted history of the universe in gloriously shot cinematography.
We see the stars form, then planets, volcanoes, waterfalls and more waterfalls. The visuals are astounding, gorgeous even, like a showreel played on a loop in a TV store, displaying the breathtaking resolution of the latest HD TVs. And just as informative. It's not necessary to have David Attenborough commenting breathily, but the abstract mix of special effects and National Geographic wallpaper is the opposite of enlightening. Abstract drops of paint sploshing across a black surface look wonderful but is that what things actually look like, or just a pleasing visual? The CGI is fine but what are we seeing? Are those animals real or extinct? Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi was equally abstract but the result was enlightening and invigorating. It's all very Tree of Life. Throughout, Blanchett continues in her best Galadriel to intone the kind of gaspy poetry that would get a sixth former slapped - and rightly so.
"The abandoned child, the wounded ox, the old woman," she whispers. Her litany of woefulness might cause head scratching. Why is the old woman included? Because women getting old is a terrible thing? They should die sooner? Here's another: "All life. Giver of good. Creating yourself. In ever-changing shapes. You give. Without asking." Does that include cancer? Leukaemia? Often the links between what we see on the screen and the voiceover make for the most simplistic anthropomorphism. "Joy? Why can't there always be joy?" a voice asks as we see a tree full of monkeys. An asteroid wipes out the dinosaurs, leaving room for the ascent of man. We get to see our forebears running around in the buff, hunting and gathering, discovering fire and inventing religion and murder in quick succession.
Fast forward to illuminated cities at night and finally we arrive at the present day and the culmination of civilisation (Dubai) and the end of evolution: a small, blond-haired white girl. For all the alleged philosophy, this seems particularly thoughtless. Paradoxically, the wide-eyed awe produces a narrow vision, heavy on the photogenic, with modern life corralled onto a SIM card and loaded with a platitudinous inquisition. After ninety minutes of being relentlessly questioned by Malick it begins to seem that 'Mother' (whoever she may be) was a victim of trolling. "Mother, why have you abandoned us?" enquires Blanchett. The urge to shout out the answer is almost irresistible.
The Venice Film Festival takes place from 31 August-10 September. For our coverage follow this link.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty