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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Recent Watches: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001)

Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films have come to define what a modern fantasy movie looks like. Along with the “Harry Potter” series and the Marvel superhero movies, they widely dictated and predicted what today’s blockbuster looks would be like. At the time the first film in the series, “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.

No one can really object to the film’s visual presentation. The epic run times aren’t even too much of a problem. Even in the extended cuts, Jackson has a decent grip on pacing. However, I’ve always felt the film, or everything about Tolkien’s Middle-earth for that matter, tend to get bogged down in their mythology. There are at least three sequences in the film where the story comes to a halt. After the first third, after Frodo and the hobbits meet up with Aragon, and everyone gathers at Riverdell, the story reaches a tiresome page. The rest of the new characters have to be introduced and the gravity of their mission must be established. Introducing the rest of the Fellowship is necessary but far too much time is spent on everyone standing in a circle, yelling about what must be down. After another huge action beat, the clash in the mines, everyone meets up with a bunch of different elves in the forest. Again, the film devolves into people dramatically discussing the situation. Before the action-packed finale, the Fellowship ride into the forest. Once again, the film’s focus turns towards the universe-depends-on-it matter of What Must Be Done, with characters being tempted by the mostly-metaphorical powers of the ring, the partnership dissolving, and bonds being reaffirmed. For those invested in the mythology of Middle-earth and wrapped up in the story’s epic struggle of good versus evil, this is probably riveting stuff. For the rest of us, it borders on tedious.

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.

Which brings me to a problem I have with most of the movie. Despite all the epic hand wringing about the fate of the universe and treachery of man, very little time is spent on developing the characters. Like many epic stories, “Lord of the Rings” primarily works in archetypes. This works for and against the film. Orlando Bloom, before finally proving that he wasn’t going away, was long characterized as a talentless pretty boy. Yet Bloom undeniably has an Errol Flynn-like charisma well-suited to the swashbuckling Legolas. Aragon, however, is a self-serious hero and this is best described in his romance with Arwin. Liv Taylor is wooden and the bland romance adds nothing to the movie. Sean Bean, forever trapped in a world of Ned Starks and 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.

However, not all the action in the film is so consistent. Both major sequences have the problem of going on too long. That giant CGI troll looked impressive back in 2001 but, where most of the film’s effects have aged pretty well, that one hasn’t. Secondly, the climax quickly devolves into arrows fired and swords slashed. Damn, Boromir’s death is as melodramatic as Frodo’s ten thousand almost deaths. And then the movie just kind of ends, everyone walking off towards an uncertain future, the audience left with a sense of resolution that can best be described as “See you next December.”

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]

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