New World Disorder : Ridley Scott's '1492' fills the screen with dazzling visual spectacle. But in dramatic terms, it's paradise lost.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Christopher Columbus' story is not a happy one. He pioneered a path to an abundant world unknown to Europeans yet ended up with neither riches nor glory. Rather, he died penniless, his continents named after someone else, his reputation in shreds. All he can lay claim to after all these years is a day named after him and the dubious tribute of movies like "1492: Conquest of Paradise."

For if this latest recounting of that feat of legendary exploration proves anything, it is that the story of the great navigator (played here by French actor Gerard Depardieu) is not a particularly involving one. Maybe all those anecdotes about the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria force-fed at an impressionable age have taken their toll, but the exploits of a nervy mariner who had the crazy idea that the world is round feel nothing if not anticlimactic.

But if "1492" (citywide) is dramatically inert, it is just the opposite visually. Its director is Ridley Scott, a wizard at re-creating the look of other realities, and he's done a remarkable job here, filling the screen with ravishing sequences from both the Old World and the New that are dazzling and intoxicating.

Scott's eye is unmatched among directors of his generation, which makes it even more of a shame that it is pretty much an eye for hire, at the mercy of whatever ear is doing the writing. When it is joined with Callie Khouri's authentic, subversive script for "Thelma & Louise" or even the hard-boiled futurism of "Blade Runner," the results are memorable. What Scott had to work with here, however, was considerably less promising.

"1492's" script is a first attempt by a French journalist named Roselyne Bosch, who, we are assured, devoted years of intensive research to the subject. Despite all this scholarly labor, however, the film sounds suspiciously like it was written after too much time spent watching old Hollywood movies, with lines like "Senor Columbus, I have been looking all over Seville for you" and the classic "No one ever expected this to be easy, Christopher" setting the overall tone.

As played by Depardieu, an actor of great energy and stamina (he's made 80 films since 1965), Columbus is a human tornado, rushing here and there in a passion first to get someone in Spain to finance his voyages, then to get his sailors to believe in him, and finally to do right by this unexpected world he's stumbled upon. A foreigner with "a talent for making enemies," his energy is in fact so torrential it almost seems his voyages were OKd because it was the only way for those in power to get some peace and quiet.

A mainstay of the French film industry, Depardieu made his American debut in the charming "Green Card," which capitalized on his uncertainty with the English language. Though his ability has improved, one of "1492's" problems is that his English is still not up to the demands of this film. His accent is thick enough to periodically muffle key words, and it's sad to see one of the world's preeminent actors having to struggle with his diction.

His acting cohorts, the kind of elaborate "international" cast one doesn't see much of anymore, also feature a whole medley of accents and acting styles. Sigourney Weaver is brittle and artificial as the good Queen Isabella, Angela Molina saintly as the navigator's incomprehensibly patient mistress, Fernando Rey understandably weary as a monk who believes in Mr. C. Only Armand Assante as the queen's chief adviser and Michael Wincott as the personification of the evils of colonialism (and the cause of the PG-13 film's very violent finale) bring any kind of charge to their roles, but it hardly seems to matter.

As pedestrian as "1492" is dramatically, that's how exciting it is in visual terms. Scott is such a master of filling the screen without making it overcrowded, at coming up with images that intoxicate, that it is no wonder that the film treats words as something of a pesky afterthought, hard to do without but more trouble than they're worth.

Over and over again, Scott, director of photography Adrian Biddle (who was camera assistant on the director's first two features), production designer Norris Spencer and supervising art directors Benjamin Fernandez and Leslie Tomkins come up with set pieces that astonish. A fire-lit, late-night public burning, with bells pealing and crowds thronging, puts you thoroughly back in another time and place. The departure of Columbus' ships, the natural splendor of the jungle world, the artificial splendor of the Spanish court, all are exceptionally imagined and photographed.

Sadly, nothing like this can be said about the story that is nominally the pretext for all this spectacle, and the script's notion of Columbus as an egalitarian back-to-the-earth type who adores nature and wants nothing but the best for the locals--while still squeezing them for every last ounce of gold--is not very convincing. Though his era is brought to stirring life, Columbus the person remains a blur, always ready for action but not really suitable for anything more.

'1492: Conquest of Paradise'

Gerard Depardieu: Christopher Columbus

Armand Assante: Sanchez

Sigourney Weaver: Queen Isabella

Loren Dean: Older Fernando

Angela Molina: Beatrix

Fernando Rey: Marchena

Michael Wincott: Moxica

A Percy Main/Legende production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Ridley Scott. Producers Scott, Alain Goldman. Executive producers Mimi Polk Sotela, Iain Smith. Screenplay Roselyne Bosch. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle. Editors William Anderson, Francoise Bonnot. Costumes Charles Knode, Barbara Rutter. Music Vangelis. Production design Norris Spenser. Supervising art directors Benjamin Fernandez and Leslie Tomkins. Set decorator Ann Mollo. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13 (historical violence and brutality).

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