the new world: the tree... the branch breaks off, it don't stop but keeps reaching toward the light
The New World is as close as Terrence Malick will probably ever get to making a "chick flick," which is to say, not that close.
It is the story of Pocahontas and her "romance" with Capt John Smith. Although we never hear the Indian princess referred to by that name (which means something like "wanton" or "free spirit"). It is almost spoken once, but only almost. By that point in the film she no longer wishes to be known by that name.
Why? Because even though she is one of "the naturals," she lives in a New World. The world she lives in is John Smith. However many levels of meaning Malick's title has, this is certainly one of them. The New World for Rebecca (her name upon baptism) is the "lands across the sea," which brought the captain to her, and which she eventually visits, never to return.
Along the way, the love that grows between Rebecca and Smith will cost them and others dearly. It's a heartbreaking story to the end, and Malick tells it in his trademark style: jaw dropping visuals, internal dialogue from multiple characters presented through voice-over, and deliberate pacing (even during battle scenes we pause to look at the slaughter through the eyes of some character who is standing incongruously still).
There may not be a filmmaker working today who is as good at visual composition. He films and films and films and then, as Sean Penn reflected following his work in The Thin Red Line, Malick puts together a performance during editing. I don't know if that's actually the case, but his films feel that way. Watch during The New World as he even gets a flock of birds to perform for him. Ain't no CGI here folks. That kind of footage only comes through endless shooting. Watch the special features of the DVD and it will be obvious within thirty seconds how Malick works.
The movie is good, but like all three of Terrence Malick's other movies... (yes this is only his fourth feature film in almost as many decades) it requires an investment. If you're into thrills, well, you won't like Malick. Many people do not. But if you're a sucker for a story plummed to its emotional depth, slowly and with plenty of images of grandeur thrown in for hell of it, then get hold of Malick's entire oeuvre (you can watch it all in less than 9 hours) and bon appetit.
One quibble: James Horner is a great film composer, very gifted. So why, I wonder, did he feel he needed to rehash his score for Field of Dreams. This movie deserved better.
Thanks to RC at Strange Culture who reminded me of this movie, which I was excited to see when it came out in January but managed to forget about.