Terrence Malick's "The New World," about Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas and the Jamestown colony, is only his fourth film in 34 years. He's a perfectionist who has never achieved perfection. He spent two years editing "Days of Heaven," for example, and the result was a disjointed procession of pretty pictures. "Badlands," his first and best film, was also his most unified - an imagistic but taut meditation on murder starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as serial killers in love.
His previous film, 1998's "The Thin Red Line," based on the James Jones novel about the battle between American and Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal, demonstrated that Malick could direct startlingly good action sequences when he put his mind to it - which wasn't often. He has always favored ruminative interior monologues to exterior drama.
"The New World" combines both modes. On the surface - and what a picturesque surface it is - Malick is recounting the familiar history-class tale of how Captain Smith, played by Colin Farrell, and his fellow Englishmen arrived in Jamestown in 1607 and proceeded to mix it up with Chief Powhatan and his tribe. The chief's daughter, Pocahontas, played by 14-year-old newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher, gambols in the woods with the captain. They have a quasi-romance that at times seems more Disney than Malick.
But then again, Malick has never stressed romance in his movies - at least not romance between people. His real love affair is with the sights and sounds of nature, which he endows with otherworldly power. Underneath the familiar story in "The New World" lies Malick's true subject - the destruction of paradise.
The idealization of the native American existence in "The New World," precolonization, is a pleasing fantasy but also timeworn and ahistorical. Surely someone as sophisticated as Malick - who once taught philosophy at MIT and was a Rhodes scholar - understands that he is putting forth a fabrication. He gets away with it because we come to accept his vision: The native Americans, along with the English interlopers, are metaphorical creatures playing out their roles in a pageant about the loss of innocence.
The film only works if you accept it on its own symbolic terms. And those terms may not have enough grit for most audiences. Malick is one of the last holdouts from a movie era when it was possible to make films as intuitively as one might write a lyric poem. In a sense, that's what all his movies are: visual poetry. Their logic is not of drama and character but, rather, of image and mood.
This can be especially frustrating in "The New World" because there is a great historical story to be told here, and it has never really been done right in the movies. From a strictly narrative point of view, the most interesting part of the film comes when Pocahontas, now the bride of tobacco grower John Rolfe (Christian Bale), is brought to London to meet the king and queen. We can see how, for her, London is her own New World, and the city as seen through her eyes takes on a terrifyingly beautiful aspect.
In moments like these, Malick fuses his visual gifts with a true sense of historical purpose.
Too often though, we dawdle with the protagonists as they muddle through their very photogenic escapades. (The film was trimmed by about 20 minutes, at Malick's request, after its initial Oscar-qualifying run last year in New York and Los Angeles.)
It doesn't help that Farrell's Smith looks not so much entranced as just plain zonked. He doesn't have the transcendent personal qualities that this film needs. His blank face gives nothing back. Kilcher is lovely but she has a blankness, too. After her first couple of close-ups, the camera doesn't discover anything new about her.
Still, Malick has a gorgeous talent for capturing supernal landscapes, for conveying their sorrow, and it would be a loss if he stopped directing again at a time when Hollywood is more starved than ever before for the "personal touch." We may need him more than he needs us. Grade: B
• Rated PG-13 for some intense battle sequences.
Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 11 scenes. Profanity: None. Drugs/Alcohol/Smoking: 1 instance of smoking.