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Thin Red Line (1998/DTS)

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Review by Aaron Beierle | posted January 11, 2001 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Original Film Review From December, 1998
Celebrated filmmaker Terrence Malick returns to filmmaking from a 20 year absence with this visually, emotionally and poetically outstanding film about the Guadalcanal conflict of World War 2. It's with ill thought that I feel "The Thin Red Line" will likely be instantly stood up against Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan", when, in fact, the two films, in my humble opinion, couldn't be farther apart. Where "Saving Private Ryan" was built for impact, it sometimes felt, with the exception of its opening sequence, a little bit Hollywood; although, of course, at such a young age, I can hardly claim to have an idea of the horror that war holds. A better way to compare the two films is the act of painting. Where I called the overall feel of "Saving Private Ryan" a painting of blood, terror and horror, Malick's "Line" is the act of painting itself. The film is a work of art that soars above the medium of film to almost a level of zen and meditation that has really never been seen in film. Where "Ryan" centered on making the characters be at the forefront of the work, "A Thin Red Line" takes the characters and almost paints the reality around them, brushstroke by brushstroke. Mood and environment and feeling is painted in with a careful, masterful touch.

The film centers around a company of soldiers fighting for survival in the Guadalcanal battle of World War II. The film itself attains an incredible, almost continual feel of doom; there is a terrifying feeling when the camera is in the grass, or moving through smoke, that, in essence, as a soldier says in the film, that there is no safe place. You have to keep moving because there is no place to hide. And more often than not, the enemy is just on the other side of the smoke.

For some reason, the film reminded me of Andrew Niccol's film "Gattaca" in the way that it used visuals as not a way of adding style to a film, but to almost tell a secondary story. I absolutely loved the visuals, the voiceovers, the nature in a "Thin Red Line", because, overall, it's grandly abstract, grandly experimental, and not all the answers are laid out for the viewer. The film itself is something that washes over you. The terrifying battle scenes are interrupted in a moment of silent thought by many of the characters; an almost trance-like stream of thought that, for one short moment, lifts them out of something that is unthinkable. There are many thoughts, words, lines from this film that stick with the viewer. It may not be the specific characters from this film that stay with you, but there are moments, pictures, thoughts, that will leave a strong impression on any viewer. The film's mood alone is far different from "Ryan"; far more somber and far more complex in emotion. What is quite responsible for this level of complexity and emotion is director Malick's screenplay, based on James Jones's novel. It may not create memorable characters like Ryan, but the fact that the film never focuses it's viewpoint on one specific character(like "Ryan"'s Hanks) makes it feel all the more real.

Of course, though, there are excellent performances here. Sean Penn plays Sgt. Welsh, a cynical, numb man who perfers to look at the truth of his surroundings rather than to try and lift his spirit with the hope that Pvt. Witt tries to find in the simple, natural life of a small village, before he's whisked from that life into battle. In an Oscar-worthy supporting performance, Ben Chaplin plays Pvt. Bell, a man who keeps hope alive in the memories of the time he has spent with his wife, and the thought that he will see her again, no matter how the war ends for him. Also quite excellent is Elias Koteas, who plays a Captain who can't bare to see the men of his group, who have become surrogate family, marched into what will be a certain suicide mission. Also excellent are Nick Nolte and John Cusack, as well as a cameo by John Travolta. George Clooney is on screen in a "Blink-and-you'll-miss-it" cameo as well. Thankfully, these cameos never become distracting.

John Toll's cinematography is also deserving of award and recognition, capturing the beauty and the terror of the battle. There are moments that attain an almost surreal level of terror viewing it in the way that there literally seems to be no safe place; there is also a lack of point-of-view in some of the battle scenes that is effective in the way that we are not tied to a character, but feel that the camera, or our point of view, is almost a character in itself. There is also some excellent use of handheld camera.

There are two battles going on and they are both looked at with a bold, striking vision. What is so amazing about the film is how it's able to structure such a deep, emotional battle inside the men and their toxic mix of fear, emotion and sadness; Malick expertly and seamlessly builds the internal conflicts into the battles themselves. Overall, though, "The Thin Red Line" is more of a work of art like a painting than a film; the fact that it works such a compelling story into this painting makes it all the more incredible.

I'm uneasy about the reaction that mainstream audiences will have with this picture; I think that it's a more complex, more meditative look at War than Spielberg's "Ryan" was, and to be honest, I simply liked this film more. "Ryan" is an outstanding film on it's own, but it just doesn't have the depth and complexity that I think Malick has achieved with this film. Although "A Thin Red Line" doesn't have the kind of scene that "Ryan" had with its incredible opening, it sustains impact with consistent and powerful scenes of battle. I hope that audiences find this film when it goes into exclusive engagements, then a wider release. I hope that audiences can be patient with this film, because, it needs patience, understanding, and I hope that they take the time to see the emotional and complex feelings that lie underneath the film's exterior. It's a film of the very highest quality and I hope that others can find it as thought-provoking and enjoyable as I did.


VIDEO: The first paragraph of this part of the review is new; the second is from the original DVD review for the movie. Fox has done something impressive with this presentation - including both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 (and a Dolby Surround presentation on top of that) version on the same disc for a movie that runs only 10 minutes short of three hours and not have this have a negative effect on the picture quality. And, as with the first edition of this film, the presentation is anamorphic and it is often stunning. This is the one title from the Fox re-issues that was anamorphic on the first release. Sharpness and detail are often breathtaking - in scenes moving through the grass, the separate blades of grass are so sharp that you almost want to reach out and touch them.

The kind of quality that's attained here is thrilling, especially on a movie this beautiful. Images are sharp, smooth and extremely film-like, with very strong detail apparent. There are frequent scenes that look so well-defined, they feel almost three-dimensional. Even the smoke-filled scenes are smooth and clear, with no problems at all. The colors of the jungle are vivid and goregous; all of the greens of the plants and trees look fantastic here. There are actually no flaws or problems to speak of- there are no instances of shimmering or pixelization at all, and the print used is absolutely clear of any problems.

SOUND: The original DVD release of the film contained an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. Fox's new re-issue only has one difference from that version - it allows the viewer to choose between DTS 5.1 (which apparently was already available on the Japanese version of the DVD) and Dolby Digital 5.1. I'll talk about that later, but in general, I've always been impressed with the movie's audio presentation. It's a movie that can be wonderfully subtle at one point, and suddenly become a massive, full-out assault.

Even in the quieter moments, the movie provides great detail. The sounds of insects and other jungle sounds are appropriate and well done, adding to the sense of realism. Sounds are wonderfully natural and realistic, down to the blades of grass being trampled underfoot or a small gust of wind blowing through. And, as I mentioned before, there are some scenes that are spectacularly intense. The round of explosions that hit in chapter 16 a little over 90 minutes into the movie are incredibly powerful, with serious, deep bass. Surrounds often fire up during some of the more intense battle scenes with the sounds of gunfire and other terrifying war sounds. Most of these scenes are so realistic they will have most ducking.

The other element of this soundtrack that I'll always enjoy greatly is Hans Zimmer's haunting score, which sounds wonderful and has a great presence in many of the scenes. Dialogue is also clear and natural, with no problems and also, it isn't overshadowed by the chaos also going on. Listening to the DTS presentation revealed mild improvements; bass seemed deeper and richer; the overall sound seemed more natural and enveloping. Both versions provide a fantastic experience, although the DTS does a finer job at delivering the detail as well as the power that this movie offers in terms of audio.

MENUS:: Menus are generally similar to the original release, non-animated and using basic film-themed images as backgrounds.

EXTRAS: There are no extras on this disc. As the Melanesian songs from the original are even missing (too bad, as I actually liked those quite a bit), I think that with the addition of the DTS track there wasn't room for those, or anything else for that matter(even the THX Optimode test that has shown up on some of the Fox titles such as the X-Files re-issue isn't here).

Final Thoughts: This is the one title in Fox's wave of re-issues that's a little bit more difficult to recommend. I think it's a fantastic movie and if you haven't seen it and are a fan of the genre, check the disc out. If you already own the original, it's hard to recommend this one, as the original has the same picture quality, unlike Fox's other re-issues, which boast improved image quality. Where I have a harder time understanding when some studios don't include any extra features when it's apparent they could have, I find Fox's intent here much more understandable - to keep the outstanding video quality of the original release intact, while adding the DTS version. "Highly Recommended" only for those who don't have the original.

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Highly Recommended

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