NEW WORLD, THE - DVD review

...the romance of the three humans is secondary to the romance of the New World itself and all it symbolizes.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"How much they err,
that think every one which has been at Virginia
understands or knows what Virginia is."

Note: In the following joint review, John and Erik provide their opinions of the movie, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Movie According to John:
When my movie buddy and I went to see "The New World" in a theater, he was especially looking forward to it, he being a retired history teacher and the movie being about Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, the settling of Jamestown, and all the familiar people and events we learned about in school. But at 135 minutes, both my buddy and I found it much too long. It seemed to go on forever, lingering over admittedly gorgeous pictorial details at the expense of much dramatic action.

Now, we have the movie reissued on DVD from New Line, and what did the studio do to improve the situation? They've given us "The Extended Cut" at 172 minutes. Uh-huh. Bigger and longer does not always mean better, although in this case it does no real harm. It's still a fascinating movie, and how could it be otherwise from director Terrence Malick? But, man, is it a long stretch to the end!

Terrence Malick is a moviemaker in the Stanley Kubrick mold in that he is meticulous in his filmmaking and only produces a film about every decade or so. To give you an idea, he made "Badlands" in 1973, followed by "Days of Heaven" in 1978, then "The Thin Red Line" in 1998, and "The New World" in 2005. I understand his next project is "The Tree of Life," coming in 2009. If so, it will be a rush job for him. Also like Kubrick, Malick seems more interested in telling his stories visually than through dialogue or characterization. He takes the term "motion pictures" literally. "The New World" is practically a silent movie with music, the imagery bathing one in gorgeous washes of impressionistic colors and dreamy landscapes. Think of Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon."

Malick wrote and directed "The New World," basing his story on historical accounts of the Jamestown settlers. It begins in 1607, with the coming of Englishmen to Virginia, lead by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer), a reasonable man who is about to hang one of his men for unnamed "mutinous" statements; then he realizes the guy is the only professional soldier among them and might come in handy in foreign, possibly hostile territory. The guy Newport saves from the noose is Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), who would go on to become the leader of the Jamestown settlement and the lover of the famed native-American princess, Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher). Later, about two thirds of the way through the movie, Smith hightails it, and a newcomer to the land, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), replaces him as Pocahontas's romantic interest.

Now, here's the thing: Only a filmmaker of Malick's stature could probably have pulled off so long a film on so slender a storyline. The fact is, there is really little going on in the movie in terms of plot or characters, with only Malick's rather vague notions of the nature of primitive America and what it meant to newcomers and native inhabitants. Basically, Malick has constructed an old-fashioned romance--Ponahontas and the two Johns vying for her affections.

Of course, the romance of the three humans is secondary to the romance of the New World itself and all it symbolizes, which is really Malick's point. In this regard, the film reminded me of Fitzgerald's description of America in the closing passages of "The Great Gatsby," when he says "for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." It is that sense of wonder--the wonder of the landscape, the wonder of the new dream, the wonder of a new beginning--that permeates the movie. The director even uses the music of Wagner ("Das Rheingold") and Mozart (Piano Concerto No. 23) to underscore the grandeur, tranquility, and wonder of the proceedings.

Malick tells us the natives had no jealousy, no greed, no sense of possession; they were true children of Eden. They appear to live in perfect harmony with nature, serene and unencumbered by materialistic or technological needs. It's an idealistic sentiment, to be sure, worthy of any nineteenth-century Romanticist, but Malick is sensible enough not to portray the Native Americans as entirely innocent, and when bloodshed begins, it is as much their doing as it is the colonists'.

Still, we get a playful, loving, almost childlike Pocahontas; a strangely conflicted yet honorable John Smith; and a remarkably noble John Rolfe. I can only assume that because this is the way history renders the characters, Malick wasn't about to buck tradition.

The first third of the movie recounts the love of Pocahontas for John Smith; the second third recounts the hardships of the settlers and their conflicts with the indigenous population; and the final third recounts the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe and their trip to England to meet the King and Queen. It's that second part, though, the middle part of the movie, with which I had trouble. It goes by excruciatingly slowly, with murky plot points and a constantly shifting time sequence. Frankly, I was a bit lost in portions of it, the filmmaker explaining so little. He fully expects his visuals to tell the tale, and for the most part they do. But when you get a film this long and a person is starting to doze, the whole thing begins to look like it's passing in slow motion.

Anyway, just feast your eyes and ears on Malick's gorgeous imagery, the authenticity of the costumes and customs of the people, the location shooting in Virginia and England, the dreamy panoramas, and the poetic tapestries of color and music. While you'll find a little of this goes a long way, it sure is pretty.

John's film rating: 6/10

The Movie According to Erik:
Terrence Malick's films are composed with a sense of lyricism that saturates nearly every frame. His twenty-year absence from filmmaking after "Days of Heaven" found almost every major star clamoring to work with the director in his 1998 World War II film "The Thin Red Line." His latest film, "The New World," doesn't come with the same breadth of star cameos, but it does come with the same striking poetic soul. The film is much more accessible than the "The Thin Red Line" and presents imagery that is just as, if not more so, beautiful and mesmerizing.

Colin Farrell plays John Smith with an effective blend of subtle introspection and a lingering romantic pathos. Smith meditates on his passage there, creating a fascinating sense of wonder and excitement. He is a prisoner aboard a British ship arriving in Virginia in 1607, with hopes of establishing a colony. The ship's loyal commander (played wonderfully by Christopher Plummer), releases Smith, who is the only capably trained soldier. Smith is given the opportunity to redeem his apparent mutinous actions by setting out to start an open trade with the tribe of Native Indians, while the remaining settlers stay behind to start work on the colony.

The deeper into the new lands Smith and his men go, the more men he either loses or finds retreating back to the colony. Malick presents a stark contrast between the anticipated horrors the men create in their minds versus the reality of the untouched beauty of the land upon which they tread. Soon, Smith finds he is alone and encounters a group of Indian warriors who he battles deftly; his soldiers training against their savage fighting. The scene is visceral in its anticipation and sublime in its execution. Smith is captured and the Indian chief orders his execution only to have his life spared when the chief's daughter, Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher), intervenes.

Almost instantly, the two are drawn together. Kilcher provides her character with the same grace and elegance that attracts Smith to the princess. She is at once innocent, sensual, awe-inspiring, and stunning. The film spends quite a bit of time developing the romance between the two; how Smith is drawn not only to Pocahontas but also to her people's way of life. Elegant is the way Malick develops the dichotomy between the two worlds, between the British colony and the Indian encampment. After, Smith returns to the colony, tensions grow between the settlers and the Indians. During a harrowing winter, Pocahontas, unknown to her father, arrives with some supplies for the settlers and rekindles her transcendent love for Smith. The stark differences between the two camps is readily apparent; the British are quick to judge, to turn on their "brothers" and live rather poorly, whereas the natives don't know of jealousy or possession and appear much better off than the colonists.

After more settlers arrive, and acting upon the commander's orders, the colonists' army goes to war with the Indians. Pocahontas is sent into exile by her father for assisting the settlers when it was made clear they were to leave after the winter. Soon after, Smith is sent to explore new lands and Pocahontas is brought into the colony, where she is baptized and given a Christian name, Rebecca. Their love hangs in question as the world continues on around them. It's interesting to watch the settlers in relation to the Indians, in how the unsettled land is tainted by the imperialist British government.

While "The New World" is in no rush to tell its story, the film never feels too long. Malick skillfully employs voice over narration, which really adds to what is being depicted on-screen. The film is a severe departure from films like "Domino" that embrace an irreverent staccato-like rhythm to their filmmaking. "The New World," despite its beauty, is not as easily accessible as most, which is a shame because the film world needs movies like this just as much as it needs films like the former, to push the supposed boundaries of film aesthetic and storytelling. Malick presents a film that is sparse with dialogue, prosaic in its use of narration, and ethereal in its overall experience.

Erik's film rating: 8/10

Video:
This is a movie whose visual glories are so intense, it fairly cries out for high definition. However, there doesn't appear to be a Blu-ray edition on the horizon, and the standard-definition version is plenty good enough. New Line video engineers reproduce the picture's 2.35:1 aspect ratio in anamorphic widescreen to good effect. Colors are realistic, never gaudy, never dull, deeply conveying the verdant shades of the new land. Radiant contrasts and solid black levels help sell the hues with authority. A small degree of natural print grain infuses the image with character. Delineation is good for an SD release, particularly in close-ups, although medium and long shots lose a modicum of focus. And shadow detail could be a little better, a minor quibble. Overall, it's a beautiful transfer to complement a beautiful film.

Audio:
If the video cries out for high def, so does the sound, if it weren't already so good in regular Dolby Digital 5.1. I mean, one can hardly imagine how much more improved it would be in Dolby TrueHD. Most immediately noticeable is the complexity of the surround activity. The soundscape genuinely immerses one, the listener encompassed on all sides by the subtle noises of wind, boats, crowds, forest, and sea. Very impressive, too, are the silences between the notes, between the sounds, with a huge dynamic range and an extra-deep bass to set them off. This is a movie meant to impress the senses, and it fulfills its obligations impeccably.

Extras:
Simple. There are hardly any. With the movie being so long, a single disc wouldn't probably have held many extras in any case, and a second disc might have been too costly a proposition. So, what we get are twenty-seven scene selections, English as the only spoken language, Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Beyond the movie disc, the primary bonus would be a digital copy of the film, downloadable with a special code from "The New World" Web site. The copy is for use with Windows compatible media only; it is "not compatible with Apple Macintosh and iPod devices." Lastly, there's a slipcover enclosing the keep case, so I suppose we're not at a complete loss in the extras department.

Parting Thoughts:
OK, you've been patiently waiting through this whole review to find out if the new Extended Cut is any better or any worse than the theatrical version. I'm sorry to disappoint, but I have no idea. We're talking about the inclusion of about thirty more minutes in a nearly three-hour movie, most of which goes by like a waking dream. I can only tell you that the Extended Cut makes a long movie longer. The additional minutes don't seem to hurt the story, although I admit to nearly nodding off in several places. Malick's vision is greater here than I remember from a theater, the sweep of the story and ideas more expansive. If you subscribe to the notion that more is better, you'll love the Extended Cut of "The New World."

The 7/10 film value rating below is an average of my 6/10 and Erik's 8/10.

Ratings

Video
9
Audio
10
Extras
3
Film Value
6