Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line,” “The Tree of Life”), has much of his life ruminating about the origins of life and how it affects us today—all of his poetic thoughts and musings culminating in “Voyage of Time,” a documentary unlike any other. This cosmic experience that celebrates history, presents thought-provoking questions and sparks self-reflection couldn’t have been created without a team of experts and scientists in the field.
The film’s lead scientific adviser is Dr. Andrew Knoll, the Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University, a NASA consultant and author. He serves as both Professor of Biology and Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and specializes in the intertwining of life and Earth. He has also served on the science team for NASA’s MER mission to Mars.
I had the chance to interview Dr. Knoll about collaborating with director Terrence Malick, the importance of curiosity, and the Harvard academic environment.
CH: What was your impression of Terrence Malick from when you first met him, and what was it like working with him over the making of this movie?
AK: I’m just tremendously fond of Terry. We met more than 20 years ago. He came to Cambridge and I got his phone call—he said, “My name is Terry Malick and I’m interested in making a film about the history of life. Can we have lunch to talk about it?” From that beginning, it’s fair to say that Terry is not your typical Hollywood person. He is a deeply thoughtful, curious, philosophical guy. It’s genuinely been a pleasure just to work with someone who wants to tell a story that I’m interested in telling, but he does it in such a philosophical, artistic way that I could never do. It’s been great fun.
CH: When you were working on the movie, what were some of the things you found yourself more curious about?
AK: One of the things I was more curious about was the way Terry has approached the subject. Most of us get our sense of natural history from PBS and things like that. They’re very good at taking you into the field, showing you the images of a telescope and saying, this is what we know and how we know it, but that’s not really what Terry is trying to do. He is deeply taken by the awe of this 14 billion year history of the universe. He’s philosophically very taken by the fact that we are the products of that 14-billion year history. In some ways what I found really interesting was to see how he imagines in a visual sense this story and just the fact that he’s telling it in a very different way than someone like me.
CH: How will his style influence the scientific world?
AK: I think what he encourages us all to do, whether we are scientists or not, is to just sit back and appreciate what a tremendous story this is. Sometimes as scientists we are so caught up in the minutia of what we’re doing that we really do need to stand back and say, my goodness, this is a remarkable history. And I think that’s also a good thing to convey to the public at large. If I’m a high school student, will I get more excited by science by going to the La Brea Tar Pits Museum and seeing the fossils or will I actually be taken by the argument that says, this is the great story, this is an awe-inspiring history? We need both. I’m glad Terry has provided that sense of awe and mystery.
CH: I’m reminded of the letter Albert Einstein wrote to Phyllis Wright, saying “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” As a scientist can you describe the humility and awe you feel every time you discover something about the universe?
AK: I think Einstein speaks for a lot of people there. For example, one of the things I’ve been privileged to do is to work on the Mars Missions. The first time you see the computer flicker on and you see close up a picture of sedimentary rocks on Mars—it isn’t just the science of that. There’s just this remarkable feeling of the privilege to be part of that enterprise.
CH: As a high schooler, we are studying information found in textbooks, on the Internet, from our teachers—what is your advice for us to challenge our minds and make new discoveries?
AK: One of the most important things anyone—a high schooler or college student or beyond—should have is a sense of curiosity. Without curiosity we never learned anything about the world. I would just encourage students to be curious. Terry’s film is an invitation to curiosity. There is in fact an educational website in advanced stages of preparation that will go with the movie. When you watch the movie, it can sometimes seem a little abstract, but if you go on the website, it will show the clip and some prominent astrophysicist, paleontologist or geologist talking about what that really means. You can go beyond the abstract philosophical viewpoint that Terry presents directly, to the more scientific background that the film sets up.
CH: As a professor at Harvard, how does the academic environment encourage a spirit of discovery and breakthrough?
AK: All of us—what we do and how we do it is in part a function of our surroundings. I have been extremely fortunate to be at Harvard for most of my adult life. It really is one of those places that brings out the best in you. I’ve had a colleague for many years would greet me in the morning with, “What’s new?” And it wasn’t a greeting for him—it was a question. He’d be disappointed if you said, “Nothing.” When you’re in an environment where you’re surrounded by very bright students and colleagues, all of whom really want to understand how the earth works and what makes life tick, that’s exciting.
CH: If you could narrow it down to one thing that you’d like younger viewers to take away from the movie, what would it be?
That’s a good question. It would be the sense that not only are we the product of a history nearly 14 billion years in the making, but that we can actually understand that history, and by understanding that history, maybe we get a new perspective on ourselves.
“Voyage of Time” will be released in two unique formats: “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey,” the 90-minute experience narrated by Cate Blanchett, which takes the audience on a poetic journey full of open questions, and “Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience,” a 45-minute, IMAX adventure for audiences of all ages, narrated by Brad Pitt.
Exclusive IMAX showings of “Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience” begin Oct. 7.