[This review was originally published at Good Letters, the Image blog.]

Doc Brown might disagree, but Hollywood says you don’t need a DeLorean to visit the past. This summer, your local cineplex is offering time travel at twelve bucks a ticket.

In my last Good Letters post, I noticed that most 2011 moviegoers are visiting old familiar faces—Captain Jack Sparrow, the Transformers, the Muppets, Magneto, the Smurfs, and Lightning McQueen. Our nostalgic hearts have been moved by returns to early Eighties Spielberg style (in Super 8) and the Hundred Acre Wood (Winnie the Pooh).

But alas, the reviews have been mixed. Many of these trips have proven that while American filmmakers can make ’em like they used to, they usually don’t.

Me? My most memorable moviegoing experiences this summer have come from a more ambitious kind of time-traveling.

I’ve written a great deal already about Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life, twice here at Good Letters (here and here). Since then, I’ve taken that trip twice more, and the soul-searching journey—which takes us back to the 1950s, and then back to the birth of the cosmos—has proven to be more rewarding each time.

“Tell me a story from before we can remember,” said one of the young O’Brien boys to his mother in that movie.

Besides The Tree of Life, two other films have told me “stories from before we can remember.” And they’ll be haunting me for a long time to come.

I’ll tell you about the first today and the second on Monday.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Somewhere around 32,000 years ago, a man entered a cave, dipped his hand in color, and pressed it against a wall. He did this again and again, his crooked little finger acting as his signature, until the wall was covered with handprints.

Why did he do this? Was he discovering the possibilities of art? Whatever he understood, his efforts tell us something particular about him, preserving something personal and true, a testimony to generations he never saw or imagined.

In the passages around the handprints, the walls are alive with drawings. Did the same man draw them? Did his handprints inspire others to make images that told more engaging stories?

In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the great filmmaker Werner Herzog leads us on a tour of the Chauvet Cave in southern France to see up close what scientists believe is the oldest art gallery ever discovered. The art on these walls may well be twice as ancient as the next-oldest images we know.

I was enthralled by the privilege of the experience, which was intensified as I reminded myself—These aren’t special effects. This is real “ink” set down by real people 30 millennia before Van Gogh put a paintbrush to a canvas.

Bears, bison, horses, mammoths, and panthers that look positively bloodthirsty—the glory of the world’s wildlife was recorded by early visitors so audiences could gaze on them with wonder, much the way you and I might watched grey whales and polar bears when PBS’sPlanet Earth was televised.

The photographer Alfred Stieglitz once made images called “Equivalents” to share his enchanting encounters with nature’s glory. In the same way, Herzog is sculpting an equivalent of his own, sharing his breathtaking tour back through time, using lights and cameras to approximate what it would have been like to follow one of the first artists into his gallery.

This is urgent filmmaking. For very short spans of time, Herzog and his three teammates were led along walkways only two feet wide, carrying only what battery-powered equipment—lights, microphones, and custom-made 3-D cameras—they could carry.

I am not a fan of 3-D movies. The fleeting thrills of watching images that seem to leap at me is the sort of fun I associate with amusement parks, not art. But Herzog employs 3-D here quite differently. Rather than thrusting his images at us to make us jump, he creates the illusion of a vast space before us, luring us forward. I felt I could reach out and touch the walls, thrilled every time we turned a new corner.

The mysteries illuminated by their “torches” abound. Why is there no discernible change in the artistic style between the oldest images and those that were painted 2,000 years later on the same walls? Do scratches made by bear claws indicate that men and bears shared the caves? Is the large cave that contains a mysterious skull some kind of ceremony chamber? Some of the animals are drawn with many legs. Was this to depict them at a full run, like an early form of animation?

In their detail, the illustrations convey truths about a lost world. In their lack of explanation, they are mysterious. In their beauty, they speak of the unique powers of the human imagination to apprehend more than mere matter.

Salon.com’s film reviewer Andrew O’Heihr, clearly awestruck, calls the Chauvet cave “the first cathedral ever built.”

I agree with him, to a point. These images of what the world was increase my sense of awe at what the world is. Even three millennia ago, humankind was giving evidence that God was up to something special when he made us. Whether or not these artists had a notion of their own maker, they remind us that there is something of the Creator in all of us.

Whether these drawings were offered as a show of pride, celebration, or gratitude, they expose our deep desire to give shape to our ideas…words becoming flesh everywhere we go.

Oh, I must not forget to mention that the movie’s epilogue is worth the price of admission. I won’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that it makes me wonder if history might remember Herzog himself as one of the wildest imaginations among the “cave painters” of the twenty-first century.