Sign language: War of 'The New World'

[NOTE: The film has been recut and shortened by 16 minutes since it was screened for critics in December. This review is of the original version.]

Didn't we just see a movie about strange aliens invading a peaceful community in a state along the U.S. East Coast? Even with a similar word in the title, there's no mistaking The New World for War of the Worlds– or any other movie worth mentioning.

Terrence Malick is the J.D. Salinger of filmmakers. Taking 20 years off between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line earned him a mystique he shouldn't have spoiled by turning out another film, especially The New World.

Malick's films (also including Badlands) are known for being slow, beautifully photographed, narratively shaky and generally pretentious enough to win the praise of a certain school of critics (who should share a residence with a school of fish).

The best thing that can be said for The New World is that it will encourage children to study American history– if parents and educators threaten to make them watch the movie if they don't study. It's useless as a teaching tool but will make an excellent punishment.

An opening title, "Virginia, 1607" is about the only identification we get. We're told that Colin Farrell's character is Capt. John Smith, but most other major characters go unnamed.

Viewers listen in vain for Pocahontas' (Q'orianka Kilcher) name until she's "civilized" (i.e., taught to walk in heels) and baptized "Rebecca." Unless viewers know going in they'll never find out the second white man in her life is John Rolfe (Christian Bale), her father is Powhatan (August Schellenberg), and the invaders create Jamestown Colony. (Trivia fans will want to know her mother is played by Irene Bedard, who voiced the title role in Disney's Pocahontas.)

The film opens somewhat promisingly, with happy innocents romping through fields of tall grass (mowers and grazing animals apparently haven't been invented yet). They gawk as the biggest boats they've ever seen pull into their harbor and unload oddly dressed people.

Capt. Smith arrives in chains for advocating mutiny during the voyage, but he's spared from hanging by the unnamed Capt. Newport (Christopher Plummer), who needs his expertise. Soon he's separated from the others and captured by the "naturals," as the English call the indigenous people.

Allowed the freedom of their camp, he engages in cultural exchange, not to mention exchange of fluids with the nameless daughter of the nameless chief. At one point she appears to be telling him she's pregnant– or maybe she's signing, "My stomach is filled with joy" or "That was a good dinner." In any case, the subject doesn't come up again.

It should be noted that moments after we're told the naturals "have no jealousy, no sense of possession," our heroine declares to Capt. Smith, "I will be faithful to you. True." Considering how few words there are in The New World, it's surprising how many of them contradict each other.

Capt. Smith returns to his own people, who have built a fort and are starving to death. Capt. Newport goes back to England for supplies. Capt. Smith is in charge for a time, but he's supplanted in a bloodless coup by Capt. Argall (Yorick van Wageningen), who relinquishes leadership when Capt. Newport returns.

The big battle comes halfway through the film when the naturals (sounds like Robert Redford's baseball team) attack the fort. Later the English burn their village. There are probably other hostilities in the ensuing years, but the film doesn't mention them, preferring to focus on the native woman's romantic travails.

Capt. Smith is recalled to England and leaves instructions that she's to be told in two months that he died. If he ever explains why, it's lost in the half-whispered, half-mumbled narration. Which he delivers. In fragments.

The chief disowns his daughter after she gives corn seed to the English, because it encourages them to stay. He says he's banishing her, but a minute later she's being traded to the English for a copper kettle (I'm not making this up!). They want her in the fort on the premise that it will keep the naturals from attacking.

That's when they name her Rebecca and teach her to act like a proper lady. Suddenly, with the movie more than two-thirds over, there's a new, unnamed boy in town. Rolfe falls in love with Rebecca and puts her to work in the fields. She marries him unenthusiastically, but she's still in love with the man she thinks is dead and they have to go back to the Old World to sort things out before the story ends in 1616.

If there's anything I hate more than a movie that bores me, it's one that insults my intelligence while doing so and is filled with pompous self-importance in the bargain. The New World meets all these criteria and probably establishes some new ones.