Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Recent Watches: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings,” launched, I was mostly indifferent to the whole phenomenon. Elves and wizards had never much been my schtick and, beyond reading “The Hobbit” as a kid, I had never cracked the “Rings” books. Mostly, I was annoyed by loosing Peter Jackson, the cult filmmaker behind such oddball classics as “Dead/Alive” and “Brain Dead,” to the Hollywood blockbuster machine, making movies that were far away from his whacked-out New Zealand films. The reviews of the “Rings” films I wrote for a Jackson Director Report Card a million years ago were overly dismissive and curt. The right thing for me to do would be to give the trilogy a second chance, especially with what is likely to be the last Middle-earth movie just on the horizon now. (For the record, I’m watching the extended cut of this film because that’s the one I own. For the other two, I’ll be watching the theatrical cuts because, um, those are the ones I own.)
The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is perhaps most impressive as a technical achievement. The reason the movie has so influenced modern cinema is because it’s such a spectacular piece of work. Middle-earth appears as real as anywhere on regular Earth. A massive amount of work went into creating this cinematic world. Look no further then the hours upon hours of special features included on the DVDs. Every bit of armor worn in the film, from the main characters to the most minor orc, was individualized. The hobbit holes and the halls of Riverdell were decorated and detailed to appear lived-in. The Shire looks like a cozy, pleasant place to live. The production design is obviously out of this world. My favorite bit of design work is the orcs’ armor and weapons, all of which jut out at rough, flat angles. Moreover, the film’s scope is epic. Spectacular images are created here. Giant statues, which I’m sure have some obscure name I’m not bothering to look up, mark the passing through a river way. Saruman’s tower is an immediately iconic image, a huge, black shape moving up into the sky. The camera swoops down through the hellish orc forges. Giant staircases crumble in the mines below. It’s no wonder that these films would go on to become the “Star Wars” for a new generation. It presented big, new images to audiences.
So many of the cast members of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies have become ubiquitous in pop culture. It’s odd to watch the film now and realize the cast is mostly made up of relative newcomers and wizened character actors. It’s weird to think that Hugo Weaving, coming off his name-making turn as Agent Smith, was probably the biggest name in the cast. Ian McKellen, after introducing himself to a new generation of fans in the “X-Men” films, was born to play Gandalf. He grasps the character’s soft humor, comforting presence, slight eccentricity, but ability to deliver noble passages and serious threats. In order to match wits with McKellen’s Gandalf, a similarly legendary actor needed to be cast as Sarumon the White. Filling that part perfectly is Christopher Lee, self-professed Tolkien scholar, paying off on a lifetime of villainous roles. His reverberating baritone is fantastically suited to Sarumon. John Rhys-Davis, similarly, had been waiting his entire, long career for a part like Gimli, that tapped into his inner Viking warrior king. Rhys-Davis finds the humor beneath the blustery dwarf’s exterior and also the pathos, when he is awed by Galadriel’s beauty. Speaking of which, Cate Blanchete as an elf princess is such obvious casting that it’s surprising nobody did it before. Likewise, there was always something gnome-like about Ian Holm, who embodies Bilbo. Viggo Mortenson, as a B-list character actor, was a name on nobody’s lips in 2000. In the somewhat bland heroics of Aragon, he found the launching pad for his career as one of Hollywood’s most interesting leading men.
Zeuses ever since, isn't given much to do as Boromir. The series’ tendency to prioritize universe over character is most obvious in its decision to make simpering weakling Frodo the main character. Frodo is easily the least interesting of the hobbits, compared to the comic relief of Merry and Pippin or the brotastic love affair he shares with Sean Astin’s perfectly cast Samwise. Yet the film needlessly milks Frodo’s reluctance to become a hero and the weight he feels under his burden as the bearer of the ring/wearer of the ring. Three times, three!, the movie teases Frodo’s death which becomes really fucking tiring really fucking fast.
But whatever, this is an action movie, right? What about that action? The film actually takes a while to get to the sword play, which is intentional. The peace and ideal quality of the Shire has to be established before the Ringwraiths start chasing after everyone. Those wraiths make an impression and, while the heroes’ chase from them nudges into melodramatic, it puts a strong mark on that first third. The battle in the mines, the first major action beat of the film, is certainly dynamic and makes good use of the interesting setting. The battle builds to the confrontation with the Balrog, a character more intimidating then a giant eyeball could ever be, and ends with that awesome “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” line. The climatic fight, the heroes being cornered in the forests by the orcs, with some decent Viggo-related sword play.
So final thoughts on “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings?” It’s a pretty good movie. It’s certainly flawless as an exercise in world building and nearly flawless as an exercise in spectacle. I maintain that it has a frustrating stop-and-go screenplay that it inherited from the book. Considering how nuts the fanboys got over fuckin’ Tom Bombadil or whatever I can’t imagine the rage that would have erupted if they changed anything else. A pretty fantastic cast makes up for some obvious flaws in character development. Except for Frodo. Frodo sucks. Anyway, onward to part two. [7/10]