I thought the trailer for The New World looked fantastic when I first saw it. The only other movie by Terrence Malick I had seen was The Thin Red Line, which I didn't like. And enough people told me not to see The New World when it came out, so I wound up skipping it. That was a mistake.
I finally caught New World on HBO about a year later, and I fell in love with it. It is very similar in style to Thin Red Line, so I was surprised at how much more I liked it. Neither movie has a driving plot, relying instead on a series of moments that are content simply to exist on their own. While I found this annoying in Thin Red Line, it gave New World a real sense of immediacy.
I can honestly say I've never really seen a film like this. Malick's unconventional script avoids dialogue in many scenes, choosing instead to use character monologues as narration. Colin Ferrel doesn't even speak for at least fifteen minutes into the film, only staring or nodding in response to others. But none of this ever feels forced. Malick is able to effectively accomplish things in this movie that would feel overbearing, or just plain cheesy, in most other directors' hands.
The movie is essentially the familiar story of Pocahontas, although she's never referred to by name (yet another detail that could have been awkward if not handled so carefully). Anyone with a basic knowledge of history already knows what happens in the movie. Smith is captured by the Powhatans, Pocahontas comes to his rescue, the two romance, but she ultimately marries John Rolfe and moves to England.
The first three quarters of the movie take place in the unspoiled natural environments of the New World. Malick's camera relishes every moment, lingering on running water or trees rustling in the wind. It captures a sense of serenity that I think has only been matched in the various films of Hayao Miyazaki.
At the end of the film when Pocahontas is taken to England (the other New World), the contrast is severe. The movie is stripped of its color, and there are profound scenes of "naturals" walking through unnatural environments. It's a bizarre world with enormous structures and meticulously sculpted gardens (even nature is made unnatural here).
I love the sense of newness this movie conveys with each side discovering the other. And also the profound sense of loss. It's hard not to watch this movie without a twinge of sadness. We, unlike the characters in the film, know how the clash between the Native Americans and European settlers will eventually turn out. The movie only hints at this, however.
What The New World does so well is avoid the This Is An Important Moment In History style of storytelling that historical epics so often rely on. As Ebert puts it in his review, "The events in his film, including the tragic battles between the Indians and the settlers, seem to be happening for the first time. No one here has read a history book from the future." And this is what makes it so refreshing.
A new extended edition has just been released on DVD, taking the film from 135 minutes to about 170. I hear it's really good and can't wait to see it. But I'd recommend picking up the shorter one first, if you haven't seen it yet.