By Owen Gleiberman
January 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The soldiers surge up the bright green hill, through pristine blades of tall, sunstruck grass. All the while, they are showered with gunfire, but no one can see where it’s coming from. Running a few yards, the men duck into the foliage, then run some more, and the camera runs with them — sweeping, in nervous waves, through the grass, penetrating it, without ever quite finding a place to rest.

Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is an epic aestheticization of World War II, a movie at once bold and baffling, immediate and abstract. Set during the Battle of Guadalcanal, when the Americans, fighting for control of the Japanese-occupied island, turned the tide of the Pacific conflict, much as the invasion of Normandy heralded the victory in Europe, the movie is full of potent and disruptive images that imprint themselves on your retina; it’s also full of characters you forget the second they walk off screen. The Thin Red Line has moments of grim oracular power, but they’re buried in a blur of grandiloquent vagueness.

Malick, the eccentric New Hollywood legend (Badlands, Days of Heaven), now returning to filmmaking after a 20-year absence, wants to hypnotize you with his artistry, but instead he ends up bullying you. He has turned James Jones’ 1962 novel into a kind of Buddhist tone poem about the timeless spirit of war: men and their guns, their machines of violation, ripping the sacred heart out of ”nature.” But isn’t nature itself a place of violence? One of the characters, the venomous Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), voices this view, and though the film doesn’t ultimately buy into it, I found myself weary, from the start, of the woozy-mystical philosophizing — of Malick’s elegiac portentousness. The Thin Red Line is full of mournful pensées spoken by the soldiers in voice-over, lines like ”Maybe all men got one big soul that everybody’s a part of.” The poetry is visual as well. I’ve never seen a jungle-set war film that didn’t include a few moments of ironic beauty (rays of sun glinting through the trees and all that), but Malick, who is nothing if not a master of images, piles on the godly serenity: a forest of swaying bamboo stalks; squirmy shellfish; angelic Melanesian natives living in sublime harmony with their surroundings. This is a war film made by a very somber flower child.

Malick dislocates us right from the opening moments, as the Kentucky-born Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), a beatific deserter, frolics in idyllic limbo. We have no idea where we are, or who this man is, and the mood of gentle alienation is the director’s way of setting the entire war within a universe of free-floating art gestures. That mood never entirely disappears, but Malick does pull himself together and stage a lengthy and ominous battle sequence, as the men, having landed, attempt to take that giant hill. The first half of The Thin Red Line could almost be Malick’s protracted version of the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan (nameless soldiers facing slaughter from a bunker on high), and though this one isn’t nearly as apocalyptic in its brutality, the mood of fear and doom is grippingly sustained. The camera glides forward with Hitchcockian deviousness, so that we’re constantly waiting, in dread, to see what lurks outside the frame. There’s even a developing drama, as Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), the ghostly-eyed leader of Charlie Company, refuses the order of Nolte’s gung ho commander to send his men further into battle.

The conflict flares but doesn’t come to much. Nothing really does. The soldiers in The Thin Red Line look and feel like actual soldiers — any war-movie glamour is scraped away — yet there’s something nearly cavalier in the way the film parades its cast of brilliant actors in front of us without quite giving them characters to play. Yes, war is a frenzy of depersonalization, but a war movie, even a hellishly authentic one, needs to offer us people to identify with. In The Thin Red Line, we pick up on the intensity, the desolate grunt vibe, of certain performers — Sean Penn with his screw-you bravado, John Cusack’s eerie reticence, the buried sorrow of Elias Koteas. As the film is structured, though, we hook into these men only in a scattered, fragmentary way. Witt, the drawling innocent, is defined by his disembodied aphorisms, and the other nominal hero, Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), whom we see in gauzy flashbacks to days spent with his loving wife, represents another case of internalized drama. The film’s only real drama is the imagistic lyricism of Terrence Malick, and nothing is allowed to distract from it.

The Thin Red Line could, I think, turn out to be this season’s Beloved, a movie too paralyzingly high-minded to connect with audiences. To some, the film may make Saving Private Ryan look corny, but Spielberg’s movie is actually far tougher. It recognizes the complex truth that war, in all its ugliness, can’t just be a violation of nature if, in fact, it is being fought to save civilization. (In World War II, the violation of nature was Hitler.) Malick’s platitudinous woe is the real sentimentality. B-