As his ship of wannabe-settlers approaches Virginia one clear, late afternoon in the fall of 1607, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) sits shackled below deck. Through the cracks in the wood, he peeks up and out at the land the ship is rapidly approaching and, hands still bound together in chains, throws his head back, and laughs and laughs. Once the Englishmen hit land, the first order of business is to execute the Captain-in-chains. Smith gets as far as the gallows, before his superior, Captain Newport, steps in. Smith, apparently, is a bitch to be around – and we'll soon see plenty of that for ourselves – but he's also the only man on a ship, otherwise padded with bourgie tourists, who can offer any kind of military experience. Newport saves Smith's life, but not without a warning: "You," Newport growls (via the voice and body of the magnificent Christopher Plummer), "Are under a cloud." Smith almost winks in response.
A cloud is right, but oh, what a day to be stuck in the metaphoric rain. The New World is the most gorgeous spiritually overcast epic to hit American screens in some time. Even when he's blinding us with his trademark bursts of sunlight, and further distracting our attention with featherweight monologues that threaten irrelevance, director Terrence Malick knows we're aware of the looming shitstorm that history has waiting for his protagonists and their epoch. With that cloud hanging over the proceedings, Malick's true coup is to seesaw his story's concerns. Famine, assimilation, and I would argue, even the rape of nature are pushed down, whilst a burning star-crossed love story is pushed up. And that love story itself should be the flimsiest of things, a historical footnote of dubious accuracy (many scholars dismiss Smith's claims of a romance with the Indian princess Pocahontas, which are absent from the many monographs he wrote in the years immediately following his journey, as the barroom boasts of a megalomaniac) and very little gravity; Malick promotes it to life-or-death preponderancy. It would be cruel to call The New World a puppy-love soap opera, but it wouldn't be at all inaccurate. So let's get right down to it: The New World is the best puppy-love soap opera I've ever seen.