January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Woody Harrelson

The Thin Red Line is an either/or movie. You will either love it, finding its meditative exploration of philosophical themes regarding man, nature and war resonating somewhere deep within you, or you will depart at the end of its almost three-hour running time shaking your head and muttering, “What the heck was that all about, and how come George Clooney had only one scene?”

Based on a novel by James Jones (who wrote From Here to Eternity), Line follows an Army unit in 1942 as it fights the battle of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. “There is only this world,” one combat-weary soldier (Penn) tells another, but writer-director Terrence Malick is intent on showing that there are other worlds, those of animals, plants and indigenous peoples, all of which war disastrously disrupts. Line is the gifted Malick’s first film since 1978’s Days of Heaven, and the rust shows. Line meanders. It’s beautiful to look at (watch for a scene where soldiers rise from tall grass on a hill and then disappear back into it), but Malick too often sacrifices characters and plot for flora and fauna. Nolte, Penn, Chaplin and Caviezel register strongly, while John Cusack, John Travolta and Clooney pop up all too briefly and, mostly, pointlessly. (R)

Bottom Line: It’s no Saving Private Ryan

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