Though it must inevitably be compared to Saving Private Ryan, writer-director Terrence Malick's long-awaited adaptation of James Jones' Pacific war novel has much less in common with Spielberg's apotheosis of the ripping combat yarn than it does with such eccentric and misshapen battle epics as Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Like those controversial productions, it's a multimillion-dollar art flick, occasionally maddening, often brilliant, slightly lunatic and very difficult to absorb during one viewing.
This is only Malick's third film, but even those familiar with his coolly ironic Badlands (1973) and the story-burying visual sumptuousness of his Days of Heaven (1978) probably won't be prepared for the odd narrative strategy he employs here. During the movie's first third, with its scenic languorousness, its first-principle philosophical voice-overs -- "Where did this hatred come from? Who put this fire into us?" -- and its total disinterest in situating the viewer in any given scene, I couldn't repress the irreverent thought that this is what the old wartime chestnut Guadalcanal Diary (1943) would have been like had it been remade by Andrei Tarkovsky.
But slowly a few key characters emerge: Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) is the educated warrior -- "We read Homer back at the Point, in Greek," he fondly remembers -- who's waited 15 years to see actual combat and, by God, he's going to get it right. First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) is the cynical soldier, disgusted when Tall tells him he's going to recommend him for a Silver Star, spitting out that this whole mess is about "property." And Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) is the mystical soldier -- as we move down in rank, we move up a sort of evolutionary scale, from the mechanical personality to the soulful one.
There are a half dozen other notable parts -- and a dozen more faces that just flicker by, including a few distractingly famous ones -- but Tall, Welsh and Witt are the film's emotional triad. And about an hour into this almost three-hour film, it all starts to cohere. The pervasive placidity of the Pacific island's ecology is one aspect of the mystery of creation; the scrabbling soldiers confronting fear and confusion and death is another. Malick has created something wholly original -- a somber action film which, though with no shortage of suffering and terror, asks us to contemplate the interconnectedness of things. It's an audacious request amidst all the carnage, a vision both deeply humanistic and appallingly serene.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.