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Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring Movie Review - Chris Peters

When I sat down to watch Peter Jackson’s new movie Fellowship of the Ring, I must admit that I had darker purposes than the anxious fans around me. I am hardly a Tolkien expert, having read the Lord of the Rings trilogy "just" 7 times. My true passion is cinema — I have been a movie history nut and filmmaker for 12 years now, and I confess that my loyalties lie with my craft. I couldn’t care a whit about the Jackson’s reverence to the material. All I really hoped for was a good movie.

In the first few minutes, I knew that Peter Jackson had created the first, great, fantasy film. From beginning to end, Jackson was obviously loyal to the spirit of Middle-earth, even if he diluted its complexity. The battle of the Last Alliance against Sauron had all the scope that 3,000 years of history requires, and the Shire welcomed me into the rest of the story like a warm fire at Bag End, just as the book has done so many times before.

The opening of any movie is critical, and especially so for Fellowship, the first part of a 9-hour epic. Get it wrong and fans won’t even want to start the movie, let alone finish it. To give you some perspective, director Sam Mendes edited and re-edited the first 10 minutes of American Beauty again and again, stating that the rest of the movie depended on the ideal feel of its opening. The result was an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director. Equally, Peter Jackson found a perfect opening in Fellowship. Bravo.

Yet as the movie raced forward and the story unfolded, my enthusiasm began to wane. The Tolkien fan in me has but one simple thing to say: "The movie was good, the book was better." My filmmaker’s spirit was equally disenchanted. As good as Peter Jackson is, he is no great master of cinematic arts. Fellowship does not compare to the accomplishments of Kurosawa, Spielberg, or Welles, in whose movies every shot has a purpose, every bit of action furthers the story and the characters (maybe not in Lost World). Not that I felt this was a bad movie, I liked it, but some of the Jackson’s grandest statements often felt shallow and off the mark, and I could see the marketing folks pulling the puppet strings one too many times. You might think I am asking too much of Peter, but I feel perfectly justified. After all, doesn’t one of literature’s greatest works deserve one of cinema’s finest films?

To me, Fellowship felt rushed. I have read opinions similar to this, but I disagree that there was too much material for the screen. No, Jackson specifically edited the movie this way. I was reminded of one of those Beatles concerts where they scream through 30 songs in 20 minutes. The film’s core emotion, its primary theme, was one of relentless pursuit by the forces of darkness. From the first appearance of the Black Riders (and those cheap shots of Gandalf lurking in the shadows of Bag End — how very out-of-character of him…) Jackson kept the pacing of the film very quick. Shots rarely lasted longer than a second, even during transitions, scenes where the pacing should slow down to give the audience a breather.

I felt I never had enough time to soak in the information I was given, especially all strange locations and multiple names for each location. Establishing shots, essential for showing the audience where the heck the story has taken them, often strolled by at the leisurely speed of light. Most people I talked to had no idea Sauron’s castle appeared in the movie, or where Gandalf went off to as he searched for Isildur’s Scroll. Had I not read the book, I would have been lost many times.

Of primary importance to me are the messages a film speaks without words — the language of images. Cinema is actually a poetry of pictures, and each scene has its own rhythm and meter. This rhythm can communicate to us on the same nameless, emotional level as our dreams, but there is a definite language in all cinema that transcends dialog.

Not only do shots have specific meanings, but how they are juxtaposed to one another conveys meanings as well. For example, a shot of Gandalf towering over the camera suggests power and authority, while a shot of Bilbo peering up from below suggests helplessness. Combine these two images back to back and the audience might feel that the taller person is intimidating the smaller one, but insert a shot of Gandalf’s welcoming and patient face and we get the distinct impression of a parental figure nurturing a younger one.

Actions scenes lay a director’s visual style bare, as there isn’t much dialog and he must rely on pure pictures to carry the story. Jackson’s visual style in these key moments was often chaotic and random. Enemies and bad guys would swarm each other from all directions, and camera shots fired onto and off the screen at the rate of machine gun shots. At no time was I as impressed with Fellowship’s sword fighting or horse chases as I was with, say, the lightsaber duels in Star Wars, or the kung fu in The Matrix. Not only do those films have beautiful choreographing, but their action contains some serious character development as well.

Many times the action in Fellowship wasn’t even needed, and yet Jackson seemed to cut much of Tolkien’s great character development to save time for it. I noticed that every condensed conversation was matched with a long, almost pointless action scene somewhere else in the film. What purpose did the crumbling stairs of Moria serve to the story, except to provide space for a couple of dwarf jokes? And why did we have 3 long, sweeping shots of Isengard’s war mines when just one would have made the same point? Could we maybe cut a couple and spent more time in Don’t-Blink-or-you’ll-miss-it Lothlórien or Bree? George Lucas once said that he wouldn’t hesitate to cut out an expensive FX shot, or leave out that long, loving shot of an elaborate set, if such images didn’t specifically serve his story. Jackson would do well to listen.

Not all here is doom and gloom. Most of the plot adaptations I noticed were not only excellent but masterful. The screenwriters deserve the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay this year, no doubt in my mind. I can only briefly list the wonderful additions I saw: Aragorn’s internal struggle is brilliantly framed by Arwen and her father Elrond — one loves him while the other disdains his inherited human weakness. Galadriel’s temptation seemed to have desired effect, as one friend said to me: "I don’t know what was going on with that Elf-witch, but I knew Frodo had to get the Ring away from everybody after that!" The dramatic pauses after Gandalf’s fall, or Sam and Frodo’s reunion at the end of the film, imbedded tremendous emotion and poignancy to passages which were originally just a few sentences long in Tolkien’s novels.

Gandalf’s refusal to touch the Ring, Boromir’s temptation on the mountain passes, or the clever little twists at the Gates of Moria - everything breathed new insight into Tolkien’s story and elevated his spirit. I was reminded again and again, "Change is good," "Departure is good." I enjoyed watching Jackson as he forged a different path to the same end, and can’t wait to see were he takes us next time.

The actors were outstanding in this movie, and I won’t discuss its details because I think everyone intuitively recognizes good acting when they see it. One thing I will complain about was Jackson’s tendency to "enhance" his actors’ performances with CGI effects. To me this shows a director’s general lack of trust for his actors. Sometimes a director needs to show restraint, cut back on the close-ups and slow-mo and simply let the camera hold steady on the actor and thus let him or her take the dramatic lead of the film at that moment. Gandalf’s confrontation of Bilbo, Galadriel’s temptation, and Bilbo’s attack on Frodo at Rivendell were all pretty effects, but I felt they masked some otherwise potent and subtle performances. Arwen’s entrance was the only instance where I felt the effects added something that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

One performance I loved was that of the One Ring. Peter Jackson has turned the Ring into an entire character of its own. When Gandalf stooped to examine the Ring lying on the floor of Bag End, the director set the camera into the floor, as if the Ring were watching Gandalf. The Ring obviously inflamed Middle-earth’s traditional racial prejudices at the Council of Elrond. Boromir’s temptation on the snowy mountain pass was a chilly reminder of the "Will of the Ring," its ability to slip into the wrong hands at the wrong time.

However, one change I hated was the abbreviated introduction of Aragorn. No sooner do we meet Aragorn then the Black Riders attack. Frodo and company don’t even discuss Aragorn’s trustworthiness until after they have taken to the road with him, which seems very backwards for Sam’s fine hobbit-sense. As someone asked me after the movie, "How did Frodo and Aragorn ditch that Strider dude?" Exactly. Too much information and not enough time to digest it, a common theme of this movie.

Not that I could do any better. As a struggling, unknown filmmaker, I can appreciate the gigantic scale and responsibility of Jackson’s project. This 9-hour Movie-In-Three-Parts is five times longer than your average film, which equates to about 1,000 times the work! Keeping track of the visual angles and styles for each character, location, and dramatic theme across 540 minutes of film is insane, especially when you consider that most shots last less than a second.

In the days before CGI and digital layering, Francis Ford Coppola spent a little over a year filming Apocalypse Now, and it nearly killed him. I can only imagine what 18 months spent shooting literature’s greatest trilogy would have been like. God bless you, PJ. Whatever little details I might find wrong with this movie, I still treasure it, because I know and understand that something like this won’t happen again for a long, long time.

With the credits finally rolling, I felt I had gotten my money’s worth. As we left the theater (and my ears slowly stopped throbbing), my friends and I talked about the great images we had witnessed: Sauron’s entrance to the battlefield, shredding 10 soldiers with each swing of his mace; the hundreds of goblins scattering as the red glow of the Balrog crept past the columns of Moria; the world of the Ring, and the Eye of Sauron. These are the moments that make movies so good; and these images will draw one back again and again, just to see them. I can’t wait until next Christmas.

Good job, Peter Jackson. I hope you got what you came for.

–Chris Peters

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