Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Thin Red Line: DTS (1998)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox - Every man fights his own war.

A powerful frontline cast - including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson and George Clooney - explodes into action in this hauntingly realistic view of military and moral chaos in the Pacific during World War II.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (Terrence Malick), The Thin Red Line is an unparalleled cinematic masterpiece that Gene Siskel called ďbrilliant... a terrific achievement...the finest contemporary war film!"

Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Sean Penn, James Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, Jared Leto, Dash Mihok
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Sound; Best Score-Hans Zimmer, 1999.
Box Office: Budget: $52 million. Opening Weekend $11.362 million (1528 screens). Gross: $36.385 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital & DTS 5.1, English Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 31 chapters; rated R; 170 min.; $29.98; street date 1/23/01.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - James Jones | Score soundtrack - Hans Zimmer

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/A-/F

One could call it the Close Encounters factor. When a movie in a certain genre hits it big, other films that can even remotely be compared to it will be seen in that light. After the unbelievable success of Star Wars during the summer of 1977, winterís Close Encounters of the Third Kind was viewed as a companion piece of sorts, even though the two only marginally shared the same science fiction genre.

A similar form of comparison happened in 1998 when two major films set during World War II hit the screens. The release patterns echoed those of 1977. Saving Private Ryan, the louder, more visceral and brash of the two, appeared first during the summer, while the softer, quieter, and more gentle partner - The Thin Red Line - wasnít available until the winter. Inevitably, the two were compared to each other and SPR was the clear winner in the public eye. It took in a ton more money - an ultimate gross of $216 versus the $36 million of TTRL - and also received critical notices that were largely superior.

But was the broad, sentimental approach of SPR really superior? In my estimation, yeah. The Thin Red Line is a film thatís lovely to look at but too self-absorbed and self-conscious for its own good.

Let me state right off the bat that I donít think TTRL was a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. I canít fault director Terrence Malick for his decision to take a different approach to the subject of war. TTRL provides some scenes of combat brutality, but it stands in stark contrast to the harrowing and graphic realism of SPR; most of TTRL is rather dreamy and philosophical.

And thatís one of my main problems with it. These must be the most introspective and thoughtful GIs to be found in WWII. All they do is think about the nature of man and war and moon over various topics. I expected them to ask the Japanese to put down their guns and settle matters in a debating contest, or perhaps through a game of Boggle. Itís a miracle we won the war with all of this contemplating!

Despite what seems to be a very character-based approach, I never felt as though I got much of a feel for the participants. Oh, I knew that often-AWOL Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) was the dreamy one who believed human existence was just a part of a much bigger canvas; he just wants to swim with some Melanesian villagers and chill. Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) just cares about the welfare of his men and doesnít seem to understand that warfare actually involves shooting and combat; heís too busy thinking about things. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) only considers his beloved wife; we see a kajillion of his memories of her as she does a variety of actions in slow motion. (If the contents of the letter he receives from her about two-thirds of the way through the movie surprise you, then I have a bridge to sell to you.)

Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) was the more cynical one who thinks this world is all we have, but donít let that gruff attitude fool you into thinking heís any less thoughtful than the others; he just focuses on different areas but he still cogitates up a storm! Even bitter and apparently-uncaring Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) spends most of his time pondering reality, though he tends to deliberate mostly about himself and his crummy career.

All that thinking made my head hurt. Was this a movie or Philosophy 101? Iím all for films that consider larger issues and arenít just about blowing things up, but TTRL tried much too hard to be deep and meaningful. Ultimately, it seemed like just so much hot air. Yes, war is cruel and dehumanizing - I needed almost three hours of voice-overs to learn that?

TTRL has other problems as well. SPR suffered due to its one cameo when Ted Danson appeared in France; had this scene taken place at a bar, it might have worked, but the sudden presence of Sam Malone in khaki proved disruptive.

However, that interruption seems minor compared to the Parade Oí Stars we witness in TTRL. Every time you turn around we find another Big Name Actor in a cameo. Thereís John Travolta! Hey, isnít that Woody Harrelson - shouldnít he be in France with Ted? Look - I think thatís John Cusack, and didnít I notice George Clooney addressing the troops?

In Hollywood, sometimes you can become more famous due to your lack of output. Between Badlands, his first directorial effort in 1973, and 1998ís TTRL, Malick produced exactly one other film: 1978ís Days of Heaven. Thatís right - it took him 20 years to come out with TTRL. No, I donít think he spent that entire time making the movie, though I felt as though 20 years had passed between the opening and closing credits.

Nonetheless, when a director is so insanely slow to make a film, people decide he must be a Genius and they flock to him. Love it or hate it, TTRL was a prestige product and all of these big names wanted to be attached to it. Never mind that their presences actually hurt the final result; they got to work with the legendary Terrence Malick, the man whose slow output makes Kubrick look like Roger Corman! (Actually, thought Kubrick has been dead for almost two years, I think heíll still work more quickly than Malick.)

As I mentioned at the outset, I donít truly hate The Thin Red Line, as it has some redeeming qualities. Itís an attractive film, and it deserves credit for attempting to take on the subject of war in an unusual manner. However, I ultimately think it fails more than it succeeds. War films can be thoughtful and deep, but that doesnít mean they need to be dull; Apocalypse Now certainly proved that. In the end, I thought The Thin Red Line was the cinematic equivalent of New Age music; lovely but pretentious and empty.

The DVD:

The Thin Red Line appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture didnít seem absolutely flawless, it certainly looked terrific and presented a fine viewing experience.

Sharpness seemed largely excellent. During a few wider shots I thought the image appeared ever-so-slightly soft, but these were rare problems. For the most part, the picture remained rock-solid with terrific definition and clarity. Moirť effects and jagged edges caused no concerns, and artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV seemed minor. In regard to print flaws, I detected a few speckles during the movie, and that was it. I never saw any signs of grain, grit, or more significant defects like scratches, tears, blotches or hairs; the film seemed very clean and fresh.

TTRL maintained a rather subdued palette with very few bright and bold tones; from start to finish, variations of green dominated the film. These seemed appropriately rendered and looked nicely clear and accurate with no problems related to bleeding or noise. Black levels were quite deep and rich, and shadow detail appeared fittingly thick but never excessively heavy or dense. All in all, I thought the movie looked excellent.

Also very good were the soundtracks of The Thin Red Line. This new DVD includes both DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. I thought the two seemed very similar, with a small edge going to the DTS track but little to differentiate the two. As usual, the DTS edition was somewhat louder than the Dolby one. Once I adjusted for volume, I found that the DTS mix seemed a bit warmer and more seamless; the audio meshed together slightly better and bass response appeared tighter. However, I also believed that the DD track sounded more active; the surrounds came across as more involving during that mix. All of these differences are very minor, though, and I think both tracks are virtually equivalent.

The soundfield presented during TTRL appeared largely biased toward the front spectrum, though it definitely broadened as the movie progressed. The forward speakers offered a wonderfully broad mix that seemed exceedingly distinct and natural. Sounds blended together cleanly and they moved smoothly across the front channels. For example, during early battle scenes, I heard mortar fire fly across these speakers in a very convincing manner, and that level of realism continued in the more active war sequences. Audio appeared accurately placed at all times.

As I noted, surround involvement was lacking during much of the first half of the movie, but when the rears became active, they contributed nicely to the movie. The surrounds kicked in a lot more information during the second part of the film as they became much more equal partners in the action. As with the front speakers, audio from the rear came across as well-placed and real, and the entire enterprise created a very convincing experience.

Audio quality seemed very good. Dialogue was also distinct and crisp without any signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music occasionally got a little buried in the mix but it usually appeared bright and smooth with nice dynamic range. Effects showed some very minor distortion on a few occasions, but as a whole they seemed clean and realistic, and they often packed a serious punch. Bass response always came across as deep and tight, and the low end added a lot of depth to the track. Ultimately, I found the soundtracks of TTRL to present very satisfying experiences.

Much less compelling are the DVDís extras. There arenít any - we donít even get a theatrical trailer. This represents a reduction of supplements from the initial release of TTRL; that disc included some Melanesian ditties, but those donít appear on the new version. I donít know if this represents any form of loss, but I wanted to note their absence.

While I wonít call The Thin Red Line a bad film, itís definitely not one that appealed to me. Iíve now seen it twice, and though I appreciated it more the second time - once freed from the expectations I had prior to my initial viewing - I still found little in it to sustain my attention or involve me; I thought it was lovely but ultimately empty. The DVD provides excellent picture and sound but completely lacks any supplements. For new customers, I canít easily recommend TTRL because it is a very difficult film, and most folks wonít like it. If it seems to be up your alley, though, you may want to give it a look.

Fox have now reissued five different DVDs with the addition of DTS soundtracks to their original Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. Of the five, The Thin Red Line probably offers the least reason to ďupgradeĒ for current owners. The other four - the X-Files movie, The Siege, Predator, and The Last of the Mohicans - all also included new anamorphic transfers. However, the original release of TTRL was 16X9 enhanced, so the only reason for current owners to replace their DVDs is to get the DTS soundtrack. Itís a nice mix but I donít think itís much better than the Dolby rendition. If youíre incredibly gung-ho about DTS, youíll probably want to get it, but otherwise you should just stick with the old DVD.

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