It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Terrence Malick's "The New World" strips away all the fancy and lore from the story of Pocahontas and her tribe and the English settlers at Jamestown, and imagines how new and strange these people must have seemed to one another. If the Indians stared in disbelief at the English ships, the English were no less awed by the somber beauty of the new land and its people. They called the Indians "the naturals," little understanding how well the term applied.
Malick strives throughout his film to imagine how the two civilizations met and began to speak when they were utterly unknown to one another. We know with four centuries of hindsight all the sad aftermath, but it is crucial to "The New World" that it does not know what history holds. These people regard one another in complete novelty, and at times with a certain humility imposed by nature. The Indians live because they submit to the realities of their land, and the English nearly die because they are ignorant and arrogant.
Like his films "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line," Malick's "The New World" places nature in the foreground, instead of using it as a picturesque backdrop as other stories might. He uses voice-over narration by the principal characters to tell the story from their individual points of view. We hear Capt. John Smith describe Pocahontas: "She exceeded the others not only in beauty and proportion, but in wit and spirit, too." And later the settler John Rolfe recalls his first meeting: "When first I saw her, she was regarded as someone broken, lost."
"The New World" is Pocahontas' story, although the movie deliberately never calls her by any name. She is the bridge between the two peoples. Played by a 14-year-old actress named Q'orianka Kilcher as a tall, grave, inquisitive young woman, she does not "fall in love" with John Smith, as the children's books tell it, but saves his life -- throwing herself on his body when he is about to be killed on the order of her father the chief -- for far more complex reasons. The movie implies, rather than says, that she is driven by curiosity about these strange visitors, and empathy with their plight as strangers, and with admiration for Smith's reckless and intrepid courage. If love later plays a role, it is not modern romantic love so much as a pure instinctive version.