Video Picks & Passes

The New World: PICK


Mission: Impossible: PASS


Mission: Impossible 2: PASS


Content advisory:

The New World: A scene of intense battle violence; some spiritual ambiguity. Mission Impossible, M:I-2: Stylized violence; implied sexual immorality; some objectionable language.

The New World, Terrence Malick’s dreamlike origin myth of the American colonies, bears some intriguing artistic echoes to another recent, visually poetic meditation on a foundation story: The Passion of the Christ. Imagery and atmosphere — more than history, plot or character development — matter in these films, both of which use language in unusual ways, including non-subtitled stretches of dialogue in dead languages. Both films also feature an iconic female figure of history and legend with an almost mystical relationship to the hero: The Passion’s Virgin Mary and The New World’s Pocahontas (or Rebecca, her baptismal name).

Although The New World initially looks like a standard PC Hollywood tableau of grungy, offensive Europeans and proud, noble Indians, it ultimately subverts these stereotypes in various ways, including Pocahontas’ willingness to accept help and ultimately join the Europeans and the unexpectedly sympathetic late arrival of John Rolfe, who marries Pocahontas. Pocahontas is no tragic victim. She is neither demeaned by European dress or customs, nor desecrated by baptism (though the completeness of her conversion isn’t entirely clear). Malick sympathizes with her trials, but never reduces her to victimhood on the altar of European imperialist guilt.

By every unwritten Hollywood law, Rolfe, an unreconstructed Christian Englishman unloved by the heroine, ought to be an unworthy rival for John Smith. Yet, surprisingly, Rolfe is a gentle man whose love for Pocahontas is affectionate and kind. Malick’s unique cinematic style, more than his politics, is the most polarizing aspect of his work. For some the film is a transcendent revelation; for others, a crashing bore. I don’t find Malick’s painterly images and meditative voiceovers quite as overpowering as some do, but I’m willing to be swept along by them, if what they have to say is potent enough.

With Mission: Impossible III opening in theaters, it must be time for the Mission: Impossible Collector’s Set DVD edition, featuring Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible and John Woo’s sequel Mission: Impossible 2. Both are stylish but uneven entertainments from stylish but uneven directors, featuring Tom Cruise in espionage heroics less inspired by the smart Peter Graves TV series than the 007 franchise. The 1996 original is an action-laden intrigue, highlighted by vivid, memorable set pieces (most notably the CIA break-in with Cruise hanging from the ceiling) that don’t really hang together as a story. The 2000 sequel is a thrill machine with fast cars, beautiful women, balletic fight scenes and lots of gunfire.

Both films take unsuccessful stabs at moral intrigue through calculated seductions. The original tries to develop tension between Hunt and the ostensible widow of TV series hero Jim Phelps (here Jon Voight, not Graves) — the catch being that (spoiler alert) Phelps not only isn’t dead, but is actually the bad guy (take that, “MI” fans!), and his wife is in on the plot. But what precisely is her wounded seductiveness meant to accomplish? “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, Ethan,” Phelps gloats, as if spies who break the Commandments jeopardize their mission as well as their souls. Whatever.

The sequel reverses this, with the hero sending the girl to seduce the villain, à la Hitchcock’s Notorious. But Notorious emphasized the moral conflict between the hero’s utilitarian espionage ethic and his traditional sensibilities, ironically causing him to lose respect for the girl even though she did it for him. M:I-2 lacks the moral fiber for such moral conflict; it borrows the bare events, but not the moral meaning.