The New World - The Criterion Collection Review
“Think of a tree, how it grows around its wounds.
If a branch breaks off, it doesn’t stop but keeps reaching towards the light.
We must meet misfortune boldly and not suffer it to frighten us.
We must act the play out and live our troubles down”
Terrence Malick is, along with a few contemporaries like David Lynch and Hayao Miyazaki, one of the most purely emotional filmmakers in the business. Every moment in his films is instilled with the blood that pulses with his every heartbeat. And each new film allows us a chance to the world through his eyes. Successfully making his films more intensely relatable, this also gives them a sense of vibrancy, transforming each new work of art into something truly alive.
The New World is Terrence Malick’s fourth film in thirty-five years – a key piece in a very unique filmography, whose owner practices careful precision and perfectionism over prolificity. Telling the classic story of Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), John Smith (Colin Farrell) and (ultimately) John Rolfe (Christian Bale), The New World sets its sights higher than simple melodrama, looking to capture the heart of national identity and the emotions that leave young Pocahontas torn between her old world and the new world that has presented itself. “Come spirit,” her youthful voice beckons in the opening moments of The New World, “help us sing the story of our land.” That is what The New World is: the story of our land, no matter which country, tribe or nation takes ownership over it.
The New World serves as something of a turning point for director Malick as the rest of his films seem to pivot around this one. Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line – his first three films – are all luscious and gorgeous but fairly straightforward while The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups – his latest three – are increasingly elliptical and experimental. The New World adheres itself to something of a straightforward story and follows, albeit loosely, a three act structure. However, one can see many of Malick’s more experimental tendencies beginning to show themselves, especially in the 172-minute extended cut presented here. Characters wander in and out of the story, important speeches are relegated to background noise and there is an ever-flowing series of narration delivered mainly by Pocahontas and John Smith. These qualities will divide many but to those in tune with Malick’s style, The New World is a magnificent film – equal parts epic rumination on the American origin and experimental examination of human nature.
What is most experimental in The New World is, surprisingly, the film’s tone. Beyond a few bursts of mournful melancholy, the film never maintains an air of sadness. Instead, there is a rare optimism infused throughout this beaming historical epic. Yes, the film covers an uneasy period of history, full of violence, mistreatment and bloodshed, but Malick always seeks to keep his camera pointed towards the beauty contained in the horizon. His images are indeed gorgeous but there is a hopefulness contained within The New World that is unlike any other film, even its fellows works in Malick’s filmography. Many look for inspiration in the seminal works of Frank Capra or the Rocky series but, for my personal taste, there is nothing that fills me with as much hope for the future of this world than the simple way that Malick shoots his horizons. They are far yet crisp, bold and clear. Far from intangible, they are, in fact, completely within our grasp.
From start to finish, Malick and Lubezki’s camera swoops and glides through the landscapes, counting each and every character as one with the grass, the trees, the river and the sky. In one 360 degree shot, Pocahontas is presented in the foreground while a storm brews in the distance, with a solitary lightning strike drawing the viewer’s focus. Our attention is brought to the world around as much as it is to the characters’ emotions and motivations, uniting man and nature as one.
In an interview with Ben Affleck, star of Malick’s later To the Wonder, Affleck described how Malick would “have the camera on you and then tilt up and go up to a tree, so you think, 'Who's more important in this—me or the tree?” Affleck seems to be implying that Malick cares more about the surroundings than his actors and that very well may be true. In The New World, however, Malick shoots with an equal amount of awe in his landscapes and in his characters. The characters gaze across these new lush lands with a wondrous reverence and the nature that surrounds them seems to gaze back. Wagner and Mozart run throughout the film’s soundtrack, with Mozart’s soft piano keys accompanying the passionate human moments while the swelling sounds of Wagner accompany the world-shattering moments – the moments where you can almost feel the earth turning beneath you.
Honest and openhearted, The New World is an experience that helps one to see the world anew in times of trouble and hardship. With fantastic performances, incredible cinematography and moment after moment of breathtaking emotion, The New World manages to feel like more than just a film. It’s a vessel looking back to the past and onwards to the future. By the film’s rapturous final moments, it’s nearly impossible not to think of the possibilities within our lives, of the frontiers that lie beyond us.
This deluxe three-disc edition of The New World comes to us from The Criterion Collection, who have previously released Malick’s first three films. There are three different versions of the film here: the 172-minute Director’s Cut is contained on the primary disc while the 150-minute First Cut and 135-minute Theatrical Cut are contained on the other two discs. The differences between versions can range from entirely new sequences to radically different editing and even completely alternate takes of scenes. If I had to choose a personal favorite it would be the Extended Cut but, if one were choosing which version to watch for the first time, I would check out the feature on Disc Three called The Versions. In addition to explaining what each version is, this extra contains a few clips from each and, in essence, gives you a sampler from which to choose.
The Extended Cut of the film has received a new 4K restoration and looks nothing short of spectacular. Detail is rich and deep and the colors pop off of the screen. Like a number of recent Criterion releases, colors are greener than we may have seen them before. Seeing as Malick supervised this transfer, we can only assume that this is an intentional choice by the film’s creator. Outside of this reason, the green color palette simply suits the film better – as it is already quite dense with brush and nature to begin with. Unlike Criterion’s release of Shoah or Studio Canal’s Ran, the tweaked colors serve the film incredibly well.
The First Cut and the Theatrical Cut seem to have been sourced from the same, outdated transfer – thus containing much more brown and white than the green that dominates the new transfer. Both versions looks serviceable but there has been a considerable amount of DNR used on each. Where fine detail was often so sharp it would hurt the eye in the Extended Cut, there is a certain waxiness that coats these two versions. While not awful transfers, it’s a bit disappointing that these two versions of The New World did not receive the same attention that the Extended Cut did.
Unlike the Video Quality, there appears to be extremely similar audio tracks for each version, possibly even the same. All three films contain incredibly strong DTS-HD 5.1 audio tracks, full, robust and pretty much perfect. The narration is appropriately whispery and, in the extended cut, often overlaps with the diegetic dialogue. This comes through remarkably well as do the overwhelmingly powerful usages of classical music. The late, great James Horner’s original soundtrack is also given significant breathing room, allowing us a greater appreciation for his already considerable talents.
As mentioned, Disc One contains the Extended Version. This is accompanied by a feature length documentary titled The Making of ‘The New World.’ Running 81-minutes, this is the same documentary from the old New Line release and is a very good, fairly comprehensive examination of the production of the film. For something that could seem like an EPK feature, it’s surprising how interesting and in-depth this manages to be. We get peeks into life on set and interviews with the cast and crew beyond the members who contribute on the second and third discs. Fascinatingly, this documentary was shot by Austin Lynch, the son of famed director David Lynch. Also on the first disc are two trailers, both of which manage to sell a different movie from what The New World ends up being.
On Disc Two, accompanying the Theatrical Cut, are a collection of interviews with the cast and crew. The first section of interviews titled Actors features a pair of conversations with actress Q’orianka Kilcher and actor Colin Farrell, running a total of 30 minutes. Both are visibly proud of their work in the film and are incredibly enthusiastic about their experiences, especially each of their relationships with ‘Terry’ Malick. Farrell is obviously a welcome presence but Kilcher is the real star of this interview – energetic and passionate about the film, her co-stars and the history behind it. Also shown here are various clips from Kilcher’s screen tests and some behind the scenes footage. Following this piece is another series of interviews titled Production, running a grand total of 36 minutes. These include conversations with producer Sarah Green, production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West. Green has worked on all of Malick’s films since The New World while Fisk and West have been with him since the beginning. Each is able to provide some fascinating insight into the world of Malick and the mysteries of The New World with Fisk adding the most fascinating information, especially to those looking for historical context.
On Disc Three with the First Cut, there are more interviews, these focusing on the editing process. The first piece, titled Editors contains a series of interviews with Hank Corbin and Saar Klein as well as primary editor Mark Yoshikawa. Filmed together, Corbin and Klein are incredibly honest and don’t hold back, airing out their frustrations without forgetting to praise their director. Over 40 minutes long, this is an excellent feature providing a window into the notoriously difficult editing processes for the films of Terrence Malick. Yoshikawa also joins us for the next feature – the aforementioned examination of the different cuts of The New World titled The Versions, which runs 17 minutes. This is a fascinating piece, containing numerous side-by-side comparisons of the three different versions, displaying new footage, alternate takes and alternate dialogue over the different versions. Yoshikawa’s comments are illuminating – especially in regards to the process of compiling the ‘perfectly imperfect’ Extended Cut. In addition, he gives a small shout-out to an existing longer cut of The Tree of Life.
The three discs are housed in an attractive digi-pack accompanied with paintings of the landscapes and characters. In addition, the package comes with a 44-page booklet containing an essay by Tom Gunning, a reprint of a magazine interview with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and a fascinating collection of production materials relating to the history behind the film. This is one of Criterion’s strongest booklets in recent memory.
The New World is a gorgeous evocation of the American myth, spinning the age-old story of Pocahontas into a modern classic. Starkly emotional and stunning in every possible way this is an absolute masterpiece by Terrence Malick and should be essential viewing for all. And what better way to experience The New World than with Criterion’s new 3-disc deluxe set, containing three distinctly different versions of the film. It’s slightly disappointing that only one version gets the full-on restoration but that restoration is indeed beautiful and the overall package feels essential and complete. A wonderful new release for a wonderful film.