In Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise, the heroic navigator Christopher Columbus (Gerard Depardieu) sails off in search of gold, spices, exotic cities. Instead, he finds an earthly Eden a misty tropical island where friendly natives roam the forest and the ocean surf crests and foams like something out of a Club Med commercial. So this is the New World! Exhilarated, Columbus returns to Spain, spreads word of his glorious discovery, and then sails back to his beloved island, only to learn that the men he left behind have transformed Club Med into a killing field. Limbs and skulls lie in piles. Rotting corpses sit inside abandoned Indian huts. Everywhere there is blood, squalor, murder. To cap the horror, a bolt of lightning strikes a large wooden cross the Europeans have erected, and the cross very prettily catches fire: Never before has God's wrath looked so much like a Madonna video. By then, however, it is clear that the New World isn't the only thing that has turned into a disaster. The movie has gone up in flames too.
Patched together out of typically lush Ridley Scott images (electric sunsets, light shooting through the marbly shadows of Queen Isabella's castle, slow-mo visions of an oversize anchor being lowered into the sea), 1492 is a piece of flaccid pictorialism. Shot for shot, the movie looks dazzling, but what, exactly, is it about? The filmmakers are caught between hollow reverence and hollow revisionism. As Columbus, Depardieu, still struggling with English, delivers his lines in a soft, halting singsong. This Columbus is less adventurer than saint a multicultural teddy bear. To account for the White Man's Crimes, the filmmakers give him an evil counterpart, the Spanish nobleman De Moxica (Michael Wincott), who, in ways that are never made clear, is responsible for the island's descent into violence. Wincott has an arresting face it looks like a dashing skull but that hardly compensates for the movie's failure to sketch in the relationship between the Indians and their European conquerors. Scott just shoves apocalyptic murk in our faces.
At 2.5 hours, 1492 is even harder to sit through than last month's schlock extravaganza Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. In each case the filmmakers have fallen into a similar trap. Out of some vague mixture of historical ''duty'' and commercial myopia, they've presented Columbus as the same cardboard visionary we learned about in school. Whether or not that image has a core of truth, are there really many people who want to experience it all over again at the movies? Watching 1492 is about as exciting as doing your homework. D