It's only natural 

click to enlarge Catch a bound-and-tousled Colin Farrell in The New - World.
  • Catch a bound-and-tousled Colin Farrell in The New World.

The New World (PG-13)

Terrence Malick makes movies in which big-name stars play characters who reveal themselves primarily through ponderous voice-over narration. But there comes a point in any movie when the number of shots of people wandering meditatively through nature reaches critical mass. And in The New World, that point comes long before the credits roll.

In theory, all that meditating comes in service of a relatively familiar story, that of John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher). Accused of mutiny, Smith arrives in Virginia in 1607 in chains, but has a chance to redeem himself when he becomes an envoy between the English settlers of Jamestown and -- as they describe their First Nation neighbors -- "the naturals."

But Smith's time as ambassador largely becomes an opportunity for him to develop a relationship with Pocahontas, while Jamestown slowly disintegrates into disease and famine.

If you saw Malick's 1998 World War II drama The Thin Red Line, it probably won't surprise you to learn that most of the love story between Smith and Pocahontas takes place in the characters' heads. At times, it's eye-rolling stuff, only slightly less exasperating than the dreamy soliloquies that made every Thin Red Line grunt sound like a college sophomore after three too many bong hits.

But it's also a bit more effectively subversive as counterpoint between the characters' idealized notions and the actual world around them. The New World does work at times in an unexpected way: undercutting the impracticality of its romantic subplot through the moony internal "Dear Diary" entries of the participants.

More than anything else, though, Malick appears determined to manufacture a reverie -- another way of saying that he wants you, the viewer, to fall almost asleep. The images, shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, indeed are often beautiful. But when you're creating an epic tone poem, you need to think about how many stanzas you really require.

Yes, there also are a couple of battles between all the gawking and beard-stroking, the action doled out with a parsimony that suggests conventional narrative filmmaking pains Malick physically. In fact, there's an almost aggressive refusal to tell the story the way you'd expect it to be told.

John Smith -- and along with him, the film's name-above-the-title star -- disappears just over halfway through. The name "Pocahontas" never is uttered once, nor is the name of John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the tobacco farmer who falls for and eventually marries her. In fact, you'd have a hard time figuring out who pretty much anyone is, for all that Malick seems to care about is people as flesh-and-blood creatures.

The one notable exception is Pocahontas, played by newcomer Kilcher in a terrific performance of eyes and body language. It's left to her to convey the one comprehensible emotional journey in the film -- an evolution from idealized romanticism to a more practical, domestic kind of love -- in a way that mirrors the portrayal of America itself as a place of tension between the ideal and the practical.

Malick's got big ideas, but unfortunately he's also got about 45 minutes of movie to spare. The New World is one of those films where you keep trying to convince yourself that what you're seeing is genuinely interesting, rather than simply different.

-- Scott Renshaw

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