No one interested in the elusive alchemy of how a great film achieves its final form will want to miss ”Apocalypse Now Redux”, Francis Ford Coppola’s special, expanded edition of his 1979 whirly-bird-nightmare Vietnam epic. It’s marvelous to see this hypnotic dark dream of a war opera on the big screen again. From the opening panorama, with its Sensurround choppers and orgy of napalm turned into a gorgeous rock sabbath by the firelight incantation of the Doors’ ”The End,” to the thrilling mad terror of the ”Ride of the Valkyries” attack sequence to the quiet, questing, potent-in-its-very-imperfection finale, with Marlon Brando for once using his physical largeness to become larger than life, ”Apocalypse Now” remains a majestic explosion of pure cinema.
It’s a hallucinatory poem of fear, projecting, in its scale and spirit, a messianic vision of human warfare stretched to the flashpoint of technological and moral breakdown. How easy it is to forget that when the film was first released, on Aug. 15, 1979, critical reception was wildly mixed. No such ambivalence appears to have greeted the new, deluxe version, which includes 49 minutes of previously unseen footage: sprightly bits of interplay among the soldiers traveling upriver on Martin Sheen’s enigmatic death mission; a sodden offstage encounter with a Playboy bunny; the legendary ”French plantation” sequence, in which descendants of the original Gallic colonizers of Vietnam explain, in dour historical detail, why the war the Americans are fighting is pointless and always was. (Did the director think we’d missed that message?)
The consensus seems to be that Coppola has heightened ”Apocalypse” into a grander, subtler, more powerful experience than it ever was before. But I don’t think ”Apocalypse Now Redux” is superior to the 1979 version. Quite the contrary, it’s draggier and more portentous, more inflated with its own importance. The main difference is that the film, which now runs 3 hours and 16 minutes, feels as if it’s 10 hours long. Coppola, who currently makes better wine than he does movies, has padded out ”Apocalypse Now” with scenes that should have been consigned to the extras package on a DVD. On some level, they’re intriguing footnotes, but by blending them into the finished product, he has unbalanced, if not destroyed, its shape and flow.
In the press notes, Coppola observes that in 1979, ”we shaped the film that we thought would work for the mainstream audience of its day.” Does he think that people’s attention spans have gotten longer? In its original form, ”Apocalypse Now” was perfectly poised between action and meditation, spectacle and trance. ”Redux” is weighed down in gassy longueurs. In hindsight, though, it may have been the hammerlock perception of ”mainstream” tastes that disciplined Coppola to hone the miles of footage he’d shot into a shapely and enthralling movie. ”Apocalypse Now Redux” is the meandering, indulgent art project that he was still enough of a craftsman, in 1979, to avoid.