Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS
Review by Dennis D. McDonald
I have two opinions of this movie:
1. It is a masterpiece of magical cinematic art that outdoes anything Lucas has done
2. The story is a bunch of sword-and-sorcery hooey
I have watched parts of the film repeatedly on DVD and have seen it in a theater. Many images - too many to mention here - dazzle the senses and cry out for the big screen, there is so much rich lush detail on the screen. The performances of Ian McKellan, Ian Holm, and Christopher Lee are wonderful to behold. And the action set pieces are spectacular.
But I prefer science fiction that has some grounding in reality. I guess I’m just too literal - every time I saw Frodo upset by the Ring I thought, “All that for that little piece of metal?”
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the film. And I have bought the book to read. It is clear the director Peter Jackson has established a new standard for translating works of drama, adventure, and imagination to the screen. And this 2-DVD set has a variety of extras that are very informative and entertaining. But I would also enjoy seeing how Jackson’s storytelling and cinematic flair could be used to tell stories more grounded in reality, say, the life of Abraham, Jesus, or Muhammad?
4 DISC DVD
On the same day I received in the mail the new Star Wars II ATTACK OF THE CLONES DVD and the 4-disc DVD set of Lord of the Rings FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.
Truly, these two releases comprise almost an embarrassment of riches that can keep a movie fan going for days, given the movies themselves plus all the extras and the commentary. Why, it only seems a few years ago that we were railing online against the evils of Circuit City’s “DIVX” conspiracy and begging Disney to come over from the Dark Side and begin releasing classic products on DVD.
Well, much has changed since those long ago days of yore (1997? 1998?) and these two DVD releases how just how far we’ve come.
One thing is that DVD is now as natural an extension of the motion picture release process as the VHS tape was. Where we once begged for “day and date” simultaneous release of VHS and DVD we don’t even pay attention to VHS anymore. Major retailers have announced they are dropping support for that format. For another, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that region coding is losing ground given the international popularity of DVD and the eventual release of digital movies that can be easily transmitted across international boundaries, irrespective of artificially imposed licensing deals.
Most significantly, I think that these two releases show the DVD release as a natural extension of the business and art involved in creating and distributing movies. The extras on each of these discs are numerous, well organized, and accessed via a structured menuing system that overarches all disc contents, not just the each film’s theatrical release. Most striking is the material added into the FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. Individual scenes have been added that expand and improve on the original in some subtle and clever ways, reminding us again of the power of the editor.
The two movies are similar in a couple of interesting ways.
Both are directed by strong leaders with a (usually) clear vision.
Both movies’ production involves an army of nerds. (What you also learn from the extras includes the fact that New Zealand nerds are pretty much like Southern California nerds and that the New Zealand nerds can get to Colorado-like surroundings pretty much as quickly as California nerds can get to Colorado.)
Both movies are tied and at least partially controlled in theme and execution by their reliance on existing works as touch points. CLONES obviously must remain true to what has come before, and Tolkien’s writing and various artists’ concepts of Middle Earth influence FELLOWSHIP.
Both movies periodically break into action sequences that are interesting but do little more than cause the pulse to pound without greatly moving the story forward; the ATTACK OF THE CLONES factory sequence and the Watcher’s tentacled creature attack in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS are interesting but do little to move the story forward, even though they are masterful exercises in action oriented special effects.
Having watched each of the movies at least twice, and having run through the supporting extras, I see some key differences in emotional involvement, appearance, and in character.
FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING looks more real than ATTACK OF THE CLONES. This is partly due to the “natural” surroundings of many sequences (the river sequence, the march across the snow, etc.) but also to a more artistic and controlled use of color correction, what the FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS documentary calls “grading.” It’s amazing how this impacts the look and feel of the movie and the viewer’s emotional reaction to certain sequences. (For another interesting example of how color correction and grading are employed creatively, see the documentaries accompanying O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU on DVD.)
It is this greater “reality” of FELLOWSHIP, I believe, that causes certain sequences to have such power and impact; I’m thinking here of the Ring Wraiths submersion by the River horses, and the battle between Saruman and Gandalf. ATTACK OF THE CLONES, on the other hand, has many sequences where the special effects overwhelm the viewer and draw such attention to themselves that you find yourself acutely aware of their unreality. The air chase through Coruscant is like that. The CGI is spectacular, but not for one moment did I think the background was anything but a digital creation.
FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS is also more “heroic” than ATTACK OF THE CLONES, at least in a somewhat Wagnerian sense. Frodo is called to be a hero. Gradually he learns to accept his calling and grows in the process. He has flaws — just as Anakin has flaws (I know that’s an understatement!) but Frodo’s growth as a hero is a much more important part of FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS than, oddly it seems to me, Anakin’s gradual leanings towards the dark side are part of the ATTACK OF THE CLONES. Partly this is because ATTACK OF THE CLONES is heavily political and also regularly breaks into seemingly unrelated sword-, ship- and gun-play, while the Fellowship’s quest in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS is more central to the action and to the viewer’s emotional commitment.
Another similarity is Christopher Lee’s appearance in both movies. He’s great in both but I think his evil wizard in FELLOWSHIP is more complete and convincing than his spoiled-Jedi-turned-calculating-tyrant in CLONES.
I like both movies, but they are different. I don’t feel very emotionally involved with the characters in ATTACK OF THE CLONES, while I do feel connected with Frodo and the bravery of the Fellowship. At the same time, some of the action sequences in ATTACK OF THE CLONES are absolutely spectacular and full of pulse pounding excitement.
Ultimately, my jaw drops more at some of the sequence in FELLOWSHIP than in CLONES. I find myself saying, “I have never seen anything like that before,” a key example of which is the river horses vs. ring wraiths in FELLOWSHIP. Plain old water made to do wonderful and magical things is ultimately more amazing than seeing another high tech weapon rolling across the CLONES battlefield, in my opinion. And did we really need another battle-among-the-asteroids, as in CLONES? Without taking anything away from CLONES’ technical wizardry, let’s just say I have seen these battles before, although maybe not technically as well produced.(And am I alone in thinking that Aki’s dream sequence in FINAL FANTASY is more spectacularly “alien” than much of CLONES’ alien landscapes?)
Another thing FELLOWSHIP has going for it is that it is based on arguably one of the most famous literary works of imagination of the 20th century — the RING books by Tolkien. As I write this I am now almost finished reading the first two books in the RING trilogy and have seen TWO TOWERS in the theater. As I read the books, I am impressed at the quality and imagination of Jackson’s vision in bringing the books to life. For example, the manner in which certain subtle details, not revealed till TWO TOWERS, have been intertwined into story line and narrative of FELLOWSHIP is superb. (This is all the more reason that a good amount of time in the Fellowship’s 4-disc DVD set is given over to a discussion of what was involved in script preparation.)
But when all is said and done, these movies and the accompanying extras are fascinating and informative. Each title has its own face and its own purpose. I’m glad I have both in my collection.
Copyright (c) 2002 by Dennis D. McDonald