Thursday, August 25, 2016

Best of the 2000s: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

2.5 Stars

The first of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a spectacular technical achievement. However, none of the wizardry that went into creating the breathtaking visuals is present in terms of character or story. As a result, Fellowship never quite becomes the great film that it ought to be or that many reviewers seem to believe it is.

Fellowship tells the story of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a hobbit who inherits a dangerous and powerful ring from his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm, who, in a nice casting nod, had previously portrayed Frodo in a 1981 radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings). Terrified of its destructive power and determined to save his homeland, Frodo forges a group of nine companions dubbed “The Fellowship of the Ring” and sets out to destroy the ring once and for all.

It’s interesting to return to Fellowship now, in 2016, in the aftermath of the general weariness with which reviewers greeted Jackson’s second Middle Earth trilogy adaptation of The Hobbit. In those films, reviewers were quick to note that there were too many characters, that they were clumsily introduced, that they were indistinguishable, and that they made almost no emotional impact. I feel much the same about many of the characters and events in Fellowship. For instance, quite early in the film, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) goes to seek the counsel of Saruman (Christopher Lee). Saruman betrays Gandalf. The scene is boring. Viewers just met Saruman. The film put no effort into establishing any kind of relationship between Gandalf and Saruman. As a result, his betrayal carries no emotional impact.

Fellowship is replete with moments exactly like this. The whole first half of the movie consists of Bilbo making oblique references to his previous, unseen adventure. He talks about defeating trolls, dragons, and of his desire to once again visit The Lonely Mountain and Laketown. Wikipedia, or people who are already familiar with the material, will instantly recognize these as incidents from The Hobbit, but for first time viewers, they add nothing to the film, and they take up time that would have been better spent getting to know important characters like Aragorn/Strider (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rys-Davies).

Alternatively, that valuable screen time Jackson chose to use reassuring fans that he had read The Hobbit would have been much more productive permitting the characters to actually discover the power, danger, and history of Frodo’s terrible new ring – the Ring of Power. Instead, Jackson crams all that information into a lengthy, expository preamble. Not only is this narration a clumsy bit of storytelling, it’s inexplicably narrated by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), an elf ruler that our heroes meet in a woods late in the film. This narration also clearly establishes two pieces of information that the rest of the film promptly ignores.

First, the narration tells the story of the entire history of the Ring of Power from the day that Sauron (Sala Baker) created it until it came into the hands of Bilbo, 60 years before the beginning of the main narrative. Most of this history, Galdriel tells us, has become a forgotten myth that practically no one in all of Middle Earth knows or recalls. This is simply not true. At least one character, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), has been alive and present for much of the Ring’s history. Aragorn instantly recognizes the Ring after seeing its effects for only a matter of seconds in a dimly lit bar. Boromir (Sean Bean) also recognizes it instantly, though he does appear to have previously believed that it was a mythical object (akin to the Holy Grail). The list goes on. The only characters who don’t seem to recognize Frodo’s ring instantly are Gandalf, who goes on a quest to learn the Ring’s true nature from some old books, and the various hobbits who end up accompanying Frodo by accident (Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, and Dominic Monahan).

Second, this narration also establishes that the Ring has some powers and desires to return to its master, Sauron. What powers, exactly, the Ring has are ill defined, inconsistent, and used remarkably foolishly if the Ring actually wants to return to Sauron as Galadriel's narration claims. The narration establishes that the Ring grants its bearers exceptionally long life. In the case of Gollum (Andy Serkis, debuting his motion capture abilities), it grants him more than 500 years of life. Then the ring “abandons” him (more on this later) and falls into an underground river, apparently for some time. Gollum retains his longevity. Bilbo picks up the Ring and takes it away from Gollum for 60 years. Gollum retains his longevity. Bilbo gives up the Ring, and instantly loses his longevity, appearing to age several decades over the course of a few weeks or months. Gollum retains his longevity.

Returning to the subject of the Ring abandoning Gollum, the Ring appears to control its own gravity/mass/position in space. Thus, when Frodo falls backwards in the bar, the Ring lands on his finger in order to advertise its power and existence to the whole bar. Similarly, when Frodo slips in the snow, the Ring falls from his neck and lands at the feet of Boromir in the hope of tempting Boromir to use the Ring for his own purposes, which will eventually lead to Sauron reclaiming the Ring. But if the Ring's goal is to return to Sauron, why did the Ring fall off of Gollum and into the underground river some time (weeks? months? years?) before Bilbo found it in the first place. Kinda seems like a risky play. If returning to Sauron is the goal, why fall on Frodo’s finger in a room full of drunks or in the snow on some forgotten mountain but stay securely in Frodo’s pocket or around his neck when Frodo is hurled across battlefields by Sauron’s agents?

Finally, the Ring has the ability to influence the minds of the people who carry it. It can tempt them to put the Ring on at inopportune times. If that’s so, why not just compel Gollum to return the Ring to Sauron a half a millennium ago? Or compel Bilbo to return the Ring a half century ago?

Fans will no doubt tell me that I am nitpicking the plot of a film that I simply didn’t become emotionally attached to. They might point out that I haven’t gone after the Marvel films for their MacGuffins. Maybe. But those films are not primarily about their MacGuffins. Their MacGuffins are not portrayed as agents with a will. They are mindless objects of great power that bad people want and good people try to stop the bad people from getting. The Marvel movies are just capture the flag. The Ring is a much more important, active, and integral to the plot than the Infinity Stones The actions of a sentient Ring in league with the central villain are a fair point of criticism for a film series called The Lord of the Rings. I may not be able to say it in elvish, but it's still true.

All these problems aside, there were aspects of this film that I actually loved. That's right. Loved. The locations are beautifully chosen. The sets are ingenious. The battles, in contrast to many blockbuster battles of the last decade, are surprisingly intimate and well-staged. Each of the characters has a different skill, ability, race, size, and weapon. Consequently, they all fight in radically different ways. The action sequences truly reward a careful viewer. There is even a scene where the characters are racing for their lives along a collapsing bridge deep in a mine. The scene requires them to survive a gambit of Spielbergian genius, and I would be remiss not to single it out for praise.

Fellowship is also a watershed film for computer generated imagery and motion capture technology. The lasting legacy of The Lord of the Rings is and always will be Andy Serkis remarkable portrayal of Gollum. It begins here, and fifteen years later it remains spectacular.

Having criticized Fellowship for not taking the time to connect emotionally, I should say that there are times when it does. At several points in the film, especially in the last half, characters perform acts of great heroics. They take impossible stands. They engage in daring do. They make horrible sacrifices, and learn the actual moral content of their characters. Often, their best acts stand as rebukes of other characters’ failures or inspirations for other characters to embrace the roles they should be filling. I think those scenes are well-crafted, well-acted, and they do work emotionally.

When Fellowship works, it really works. It demonstrates the glorious and beautiful film that it almost is. Unfortunately, large parts of it don’t work because a great deal of the film is dedicated to fan service. As a result, it is not a classic that I want to return to again.

Then again, what do I know. Seven of the 37 critics surveyed all agreed that it was one of the best films of the decade. Two of them declared it (along with the other members of its trilogy) to be the very best film of the decade. I know for a fact that the next film on my list is one I can wholeheartedly endorse. It’s Spirited Away. I’m already on record loving it.

From Out in the Void,

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