The New World has an imposing science fiction title, but Terrence Malick’s long, moody, diaphanous account of love and loss in 17th-century Jamestown—shot, more or less, on location—rarely achieves the symphonic grandeur it seeks. As an epic, it’s monumentally slight.
Malick’s retelling of the Pocahontas story known to every American youngster (but generally underleveraged by American artists) begins with the image of the sky reflected in the water and the sound of a child’s incantation. Virginia 1607: The wooden ships arrive, the music swells, and the members of the indigenous Powhatan tribe are amazed. (It’s Wagner!) As the English glide inland through the marsh, the “naturals” materialize around them, touching and barking—until one Englishman gets nervous and discharges his gun.
Eden is not yet lost. The dashing adventurer Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) ventures deeper into the swamp, is captured by the uncanny Powhatan and saved from death by the chief’s lithe and lively daughter Pocahontas (the remarkably poised, 14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher). The historical Pocahontas encountered Smith when she was around 11 and he was nearly 30; Malick acknowledges this by making his exotic-looking heroine somewhat more kittenish than the sloe-eyed buckskin babe of the 1995 Disney animation.
Pocahontas is smitten with the brooding Englishman; her father is more practical: “He can teach her about his land beyond the sea.” This rustic spectacle is not quite a bore but not exactly a myth. Where The New World begins by evoking Werner Herzog’s masterful conquistador quest Aguirre, the Wrath of God, it soon settles down in the neighborhood of Kevin Costner’s sappy Dances With Wolves. Smith contemplates the Powhatan natural paradise of fabulous body paint and spontaneous hippie dances, not to mention a daily regimen of chaste nuzzling with young Miss P, and his appreciation burbles over: “They have no jealousy, no sense of possession.”
Heavily aestheticized, The New World is also timidly genteel. Whatever the historical truth, the basis of the Pocahontas myth is a utopian dream of love in the woods and reconciliation between America’s warring races. This desire was rationalized once Pocahontas, the most successful example of intermarriage in American mythology, was integrated into colonial and even British society. Indeed, the Indian princess was, for a time, a national icon—the American equivalent of France’s Marianne. But ours is not, at least officially, a creole culture. In the 20th century, second-tier American poets (Hart Crane, Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg) evoked Pocahontas as a fertility goddess—and so does Malick when she arrives in wintry Jamestown and suddenly brings the spring.
The settlers, like Smith, survive thanks to Pocahontas’s generosity. But the improved weather doesn’t help the movie much. Scarcely as rhapsodic as its prologue, The New World settles into a languid rut. All is diffuse, gauzy, insubstantial, underwhelming. The structure feels amorphous—despite Malick’s attempts to renew his film language with odd angles, sudden blackouts, and modulated jump cuts. Malick’s remarkable, transcendentalist adaptation of The Thin Red Line thrived on the tension between horrible carnage and beautiful, indifferent “nature.” The New World wakes from its trance, albeit briefly, when the Powhatan attack Jamestown.
Ultimately it is not Smith but Pocahontas who goes native. (At least Malick presents white juju as no less weird than the natural variety.) Smith leaves and is replaced in the movie by kindly widower John Rolfe (Christian Bale). If anything, this John’s stream of consciousness is even more banal than his predecessor’s: “She weaves all things together,” he muses of the dusky, now suitably corseted princess whom he has begun to woo. (And her soul replies: “He is like a tree, he shelters me.”) The two marry and are presently summoned to England for a royal audience. In a cut worthy of a Griffith two-reeler, Malick shows Smith wandering disconsolate on a rocky beach in the company of some Inuit lass.
“Did you find your Indies, John?” Pocahontas asks when they meet once more (in a formal garden) toward the end of her remarkable life. “I may have sailed past them,” Captain Smith mumbles meaningfully. So too Malick: The New World scarcely lacks for ambition, but to provide the disorientation the filmmaker courts, he would need the restraint of Bresson or the chops of Tarkovsky. Some 25 years in the making,
The New World offers only a glimpse of an unattainable realm that fades into the mist even as you search for it.