The Thin Red Line - rated - HOT! HOT! HOT!

Here's a film that I rate in my hightest category, but I will say right off that it is not a masterpiece. It is a flawed gem, but still a gem.

It is amazing that in a year which has produced 3 high-profile films about World War II that the 3 films could be so different. One, Saving Private Ryan , a gritty drama. The second, Life is Beautiful, a bitter-sweet comedy, and the third, The Thin Red Line , a melancholy philosophical reflection. Who said that all films are becoming the same? Who said that Hollywood is so dominant that there is little hope of seeing films which don't fit the box-office formula. At least for now they are still being made - and seen.

The Thin Red Line is unbelievably beautiful to look at - sometimes distractingly so. At the same time as he is giving us gorgeous pictures to look at, Terrence Malick gives us a dense, intensely cerebral script to digest. At times it is too abstract, too hard to swallow at one sitting. I found myself wanting to hit the rewind button several times during the movie, and being disappointed to miss chunks of internal dialogue. It's a movie that you know you'll need to see again. And yet I didn't find this difficult script annoying, as some have. I felt its density fitted the subject - war and humanity - and what it means to be alive. It gave the film a Brechtian touch that invites further analysis. This is a very brainy film indeed.

It follows the story of the ground war in Guadalcanal. By the time the film opens, the major battle for Guadalcanal - the sea battle - is over, and the war of attrition to gain the island has just begun. This is the unglamourous part of war - the part that's costliest in human lives, and the part that takes the longest. So Malick stretches out the time and intercuts it with flashbacks and daydreams, so that it takes on a feverish tone. There's an exciting battle, there's cruelty and bravery and there's blood and gore, but the overwhelming feeling of the movie is that of lush green tropical beauty. Savagery, yes, but mostly beauty.

The cast is overwhelmingly male (Australia's terrific Miranda Otto is the only woman in the cast - and she is a flashback, or, more properly, an illusion). Malick seems to have chosen his men for the beauty of their eyes. Most of them have beautiful dark, almost black eyes. Then there's Sean Penn, not known for his beauty, but he does have the most piercing blue eyes. And then there's Woody Harrelson, who can be, and is so good. Here he has a death scene that is literally stunning, and extraordinarily real. He captures a moment that must rank among the greats of cinema. Unfortunately, Malick has also included a couple of annoying & distracting cameos - John Travolta is particularly jarring, George Clooney less so.

Apart from these distracting cameos, and the major roles, Malick seems to have chosen men who look somewhat alike, and then he photographs them covered in mud, so that we find it difficult to tell one from the other. Then he mixes in about 8 different characters' narrations, so that we become even more confused. I'm convinced Malick intends to confuse us. I believe Malick wanted to show the amorphous mass of humanity at war, not so much the individuals. I believe he wanted to show the human tragedy, not just the individual drama. Maybe he doesn't quite succeed, but he takes us quite some way towards that goal.

In Saving Private Ryan , Speilberg shows us that War is Hell. In Life is Beautiful , Benigno shows us that War is Stupid, but in The Thin Red Line shows us that War is Against Nature. It's a Shakespearian idea, at once simple and profoundly moving. Malick shows us over and over again how absurd it is that people from foreign lands should be struggling against each other on this island paradise for a victory which is beyond the comprehension of the island's rightful inhabitants. In one scene, the soldiers carefully march in a line snaking along a path, fearful of every step and watchful for the enemy, or enemy mines. Then an old Melanesian man comes walking blithely past them in the opposite direction, as he clearly does every day. This day is no exception. It's a wonderful moment - a moment which asks you to recalibrate yourself. Who's crazy here?

Another great scene illustrating the impossible logic of the predicament is the scene in which Captain Staros, Elias Koteas (of Crash fame, in another excellent, low-key performance), bucks against the system and disobeys the (insane) orders of Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte, also excellent). No sooner does he make his stand than the circumstances change, and his moral issue resolves itself. Even morality, even one's own standards, don't work properly in this savage setting. Even the pure and redemptive love between Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) and his wife (Miranda Otto) is not as it appears to be.

The Thin Red Line is a long and demanding film, but a rewarding one. It tries to do more than thrill and move you. It tries to work on your mind. In my case, 3 weeks later, it is still working.