If you trimmed down all of the vague and philosophical-ish navel-gazing that occurs throughout Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, you'd probably have a war movie that ranks right up there with Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan -- but then you wouldn't exactly have a Terrence Malick movie, now would you?
Malick, as any self-respecting movie geek can tell you, is the revered filmmaker who manages to bang out one movie every 5 - 20 years. His first film was the truly excellent Badlands in 1973, and Days of Heaven followed five years later. Malick avoided the movie biz for the next two decades, venturing forth only to adapt James Jones' "The Thin Red Line" in 1998. (Mr. Malick's fourth film, The New World, which focuses on the 17th-century strife between explorer John Smith and America's indigenous residents, hits theaters later this year.)
Much has been written about the philosophical side of The Thin Red Line, and much of those doing the writing have complained that the "existential angst" material bogs down what is otherwise a stunningly directed and intense war movie. And those are the folks I agree with.
The setting is WWII and the historic battle at Guadalcanal, where several heroic young soldiers fought bravely and lost their lives in the process. Malick has gathered together one hell of an ensemble cast for The Thin Red Line: a collection of soldiers that should come across as colorful and disparate -- but instead feel more like a gallery of familiar guys in fatigues. Basically, the all-star cast is a distraction; it's tough to sit through the three-hour expanse of The Thin Red Line without thinking "Hey, look, it's Sean Penn! And Nick Nolte! And George Clooney, John C. Reilly, John Cusack, James Caviezel, Woody Harrelson, etc., etc.!" Every time a celebrity face pops up, one is essentially yanked right out of the drama and dropped into a game of Spot That Actor.
But, to Malick's credit, he gets some superlative performances from every member of his expansive-yet-distracting cast of actors. Standouts include Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, and Adrien Brody -- but with this many actors on display, it's tough to focus on the plot threads that interest you the most; we're always moving to someone else delivering metaphysical voice-over chit-chat while big explosions boom in the background.
So while it's clear that Mr. Malick is going for something more deep, insightful, and challenging than your run-of-the-mill war epic, the simple truth is that the half-hearted philosophy lectures come off as pretentious as they do boring.
Which leaves the actual "war" stuff -- all of which is stunningly realized and absolutely wonderful. And I don't just mean the bullets & bombs action bits (which are simply amazing to behold), but the moments of panic and camaradierie between the overwhelmed soldiers and the frequently illuminating ways in which Malick exposes "military intelligence" for what it really is: a bunch of normal Joe soldiers, trapped in bullet-strewn foxholes, searching desperately for a way to stay alive while serving their country well.
There are several sequences in The Thin Red Line that rank among the finest war simulations I've ever seen. The director's camera sweeps majestically through decimated villages, foreboding jungles, and lush landscapes -- all of which are promptly demolished by bullets, blood, and the screams of dying young men. Basically, when The Thin Red Line sticks to the battlefields, it's an absolutely excellent film.
But once the fighting dies down and we're left to listen in on the soldiers' mental meanderings, the viewer is apt to feel like he just wandered into a Philosophy 101 class -- and those classes can be pretty damn boring, especially if you're just looking to enjoy a well-wrought war flick.
Video: The film is presented in a rather impressive Widescreen (2.35:1) anamorphic aspect ratio, which does a great service to Mr. Malick's lush and intricate directorial style.
Audio: Three audio options, all in English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, DTS Surround, and Dolby Digital 2.0. Regardless of which track you pick, you'll be getting the bullets, the explosions, the screaming, and the philosophizin' in fine aural form. Optional subtitles are available in English & Spanish.
Extras: Not a one.
I'm well aware that The Thin Red Line is very well-regarded by the Malick fans out there, and on this, my second visit with the film after being fairly bored to tears during a multiplex viewing seven years ago, I really tried to "broaden my horizons" and try to acknowledge and appreciate the film's philosophical side. It didn't take. And while I can appreciate and applaud the stunning realism with which Malick has re-created Guadalcanal, I found myself breathlessly bored by the airy pondering and dime-store poetry scattered amidst the sobering carnage.
As a war movie, The Thin Red Line offers some amazing sights and sounds. But when it comes to the brains and the oh-so-weighty ponderings of the soul, the movie could not have left me colder. I can offer the film our Recommended rating rather easily, because this sort of heady brew will offer something entirely unique to each individual viewer, but I still can't help but feel that The Thin Red Line would have been infinitely more successful without the frequent rest-stops full of mental malaise and philosophical pretense.