Malick ended the silence which followed his fantastic 1970s one-two punch of Badlands and Days of Heaven - airy, wind-swept paeans to wide-open skies and the loneliness that lies like a bruise on the land beneath them - with 1998's star-stuffed adaptation of James Jones' battle epic The Thin Red Line. It would have been the World War II movie to end the century with, but for a little something called Saving Private Ryan, out that same year. Up against Ryan's self-consciously stomach-churning gore and herky-jerky camerawork, not to mention its resolutely action, action, ACTION! pacing, Malick's moony meditation on the thin line (if any) between civilization and savagery couldn't help but come off as impossibly arch. Never mind that Malick's battle scenes were even more vicious and realistic than Spielberg's, given their eschewing of comforting action film tropes in favor of pure hot chaos. A strike (well, several strikes) against Malick was his habit of telling the story via overlapping voiceovers, as each of the characters thinks Big Important Thoughts about life and war and love. By jettisoning Jones' pungent prose, all the characters ended up sounding exactly the same, like Malick just thinking aloud in the sort of white-noise pseudo-philosophical jumble that Godard litters his films with.
Which brings us at long last to Malick's latest, The New World, which has all the negatives of Thin Red Line (rambling story, little realistic character interaction) and too few of its positives. This time, Malick has returned to the great subject of his 1970s films - America - and uses one of its hoariest stories to illustrate its birth. The year is 1607 in the soon-to-be colony of Virginia and a couple of boatloads of bedraggled British explorers have just weighed anchor. The native Americans (called the Naturals by the newcomers) meet the arrivals with some curiosity but seem content to leave them to themselves - war will come later. Among the British is a mutinous John Smith (Colin Farrell), just barely saved from the noose, who ends up a captive of the Naturals after blundering alone deep into their territory. Smith is again saved from execution, this time by the love-struck Pocahontas (the stunning Q'Orianka Kilcher), who is the daughter of Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg), and so has some pull.
While the Pocahontas story is worn too thin by overuse in children's books and a particularly bad Disney movie, there's little need for worry on that front because Malick is only really concerned with its barest basics: how Smith and Pocahontas fall in love, how she brings food to save the starving settlers of Jamestown, and eventually is brought to England. What Malick's more interested in, fortunately, is the land itself. From the very first scenes where Naturals swim like mermaids and flit with elfin grace through the woods, Malick's camera is focused intently on the lush, roaring gorgeousness of the land. With awesome patience, he shows water gurgle over rocks, tall grasses blow, trees sway in their ancient dance, and none of it is the least bit tiresome. There's a force behind the watching that compels a viewer to bury himself in the deep beauty of what he's beholding, this harsh Eden soon to be forever changed. The images are further enhanced by James Horner's score, initially monotonous and ultimately trance-like, singing the praise of the land with practically Whitman-esque ardor.
Unfortunately, however, there are also humans in Malick's canvas, and few of them can stand up against his roaring vision of nature, not to mention dealing with more fatuous voiceover, a fair example of which goes: "There is that in her I shall not know." Farrell seems afflicted with the same childlike vacuity he used to such ill effect in Alexander, coming only somewhat to life when gamboling in grassy fields with Kilcher, who rivals nature as the source of Malick's attention. The filmmaker seems convinced that Kilcher's ingénue gleam and beaming enthusiasm could make a film in and of themselves, and so we are treated to scene after endless scene of Pocahontas running in fields, swaying about with a contented hippie's smile, and looking longingly into Smith's eyes. It's possible there's an actress somewhere in Kilcher, but Malick smothers her in such worshipful gazing that it's hard to truly say.
Registering somewhat higher on the human scale is Christian Bale, playing John Rolfe, a British tobacco farmer who takes over Pocahontas-worshipping duties once Smith jaunts off into the wild on more exploratory adventures. He seems a duller type - no more gamboling in fields - but definitely more dependable, and even seems to try and engage Pocahontas in conversation from time to time. Other actors making valiant stands against Malick's personality-flattening camera are the majestic Wes Studi, as a tribemate of Pocahontas', and the leathery whip that is Christopher Plummer, playing the captain of the first Jamestown expedition.
Well before The New World runs aground on an ill-advised finale set in England, many will have lost patience with its discursions and refusals to engage in basic narrative strategies, thinking the whole thing a pretentious bore. A loud minority will proclaim this work genius, pointing to the swell of its music and imagery as a cinematic symphony of Americana without compare. They would both be right. They would also both be absolutely wrong.
In the new world, there will be scissors.
Run time: 135 mins
In Theaters: Friday 20th January 2006
Box Office USA: $12.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $30.5M
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Production compaines: New Line Cinema, Sunflower Productions, Sarah Green Film, First Foot Films, The Virginia Company LLC
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 62%
Fresh: 109 Rotten: 68
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Starring: Colin Farrell as Captain Smith, Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas, Christopher Plummer as Captain Newport, Christian Bale as John Rolfe, August Schellenberg as Powhatan, Wes Studi as Opechancanough, David Thewlis as Wingfield, Yorick van Wageningen as Captain Argall, Ben Mendelsohn as Ben, Noah Taylor as Selway, Jason Aaron Baca as Parker, Eddie Marsan as Eddie