Terrence Malick doesn't make movies; he creates celluloid performance art. With their multiple narrators, dreamlike, almost surreal visuals and fractured story structure, Malick's films aren't so much told as experienced. On one level, they're utterly unique works, voyages into a world somewhere between hallucination and reality. Unfortunately, their artsy tone can also lead to dramatic inertia.

All of these strengths and weaknesses are on display in The New World, Malick's film about the first contact between English settlers and Native Americans in 1607 Virginia, and how it played out on a personal level in the love affair between John Smith and Pocahontas. Like all of Malick's films, the director's latest contains sequences of stunning beauty and power, yet suffers from lackadaisical pacing and a tendency to overly poeticize its story. Still, it's a real work of art, a hearty meal in today's cinematic fast-food culture.

The movie opens on a high note, with a beautiful sequence featuring English ships sailing into Jamestown Bay as members of the local Powhatan tribe stare in awe. Highlighted by James Horner's Dvorak-influenced score, this is mesmerizing, evocative stuff. After that, The New World moves-in its idiosyncratic way-into a tale known to every American. Rebellious John Smith (Colin Powell, athletic and sexy) is sent on a food-gathering expedition. He's captured by the Powhatans and falls for Chief Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas (newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher, absolutely sensational). The chief wants the English out of his territory, and when he prepares to attack, Pocahontas warns Smith. For this act of disloyalty she's banished from her tribe, and eventually winds up living with the colonizers.

Smith is eventually called back to England, and Pocahontas soon befriends widower John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Their sense of personal loss draws them together, and they marry and have a son. Rolfe brings her to England, where they are given an audience with the King and Queen (another beautifully conceived sequence), but Pocahontas contracts a disease and dies on the voyage back to America.

Those are the bare bones of the story. Any other filmmaker would probably try to tell this in a linear, costume-drama manner, but that's not Malick's take on the material. He throws in voiceovers from several participants, jumps backward and forward in time, edits in shots of majestic forests and waving grasses. Much is left unsaid; mood is thick, and rich. Malick has been doing this since his first film, Badlands, when it became obvious he wasn't interested in conventional narrative structure. There's nothing wrong with that; films like The Thin Red Line and The New World may sometimes stagger from scene to scene, but they also build up to a cumulative feeling of emotional power that is often overwhelming.

Malick's problem is that he doesn't know when to quit. Too much poetic voiceover; too many pensive shots of Kilcher and Farrell; too many planned, if awkward, edits and jumps in time. At 150 minutes, The New World is definitely too long. But what exactly to cut? There's so much richness here, so much creative energy, you'd hate to say: "Hey, Terry. Slow down. Smell the coffee." But it's just this sense of an artistic kamikaze at work, charging ahead with ideas and no sense of limits, that makes films like The New World so majestic-and so tantalizing in their imperfections.

-Lewis Beale