MORIARTY Reviews LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING!!
Published at: Dec. 13, 2001, 5:58 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
So this morning I saw New Line's highly-anticipated LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, right?
I cannot stress this strongly enough: do not see this movie.
If you do, it will ruin you for everything else.
Films you've seen before, films you're waiting to see, films you have on DVD... it doesn't matter. All will pale by comparison after you finally lay eyes on Peter Jackson's visionary masterpiece.
As the credits rolled sometime around 2:00 this afternoon, I sat motionless, shell-shocked. There were about ten or twelve other people in the Chaplin Theater, but I couldn't tell you what they looked like or what reactions they had. It feels like my eyes have been seared by three hours worth of raw imagination somehow burned into the emulsion by the sheer force of Peter Jackson's will, like there are images etched there now that I cannot shake, that I do not want to shake. I close my eyes and I see a rush of moments, little details that pulled me into Middle-Earth with an intensity of belief I haven't felt since I was seven years old. I have called friends up out of the blue, emotional today, dying to tell them about the movie. I feel like Jimmy Stewart at the end of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE running down the streets of Bedford Falls, screaming and hollering like a crazy man because of the joy that fills me up. I am spilling over, drunk and delirious because my faith has been restored. FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS isn't just as good as you've heard; it's not just as good as the hype says; it's not just a brilliant movie.
With utter confidence, I can say that FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS is one of the ten finest motion pictures it has ever been my pleasure to see.
Okay, I can already hear you rolling your eyes and getting ready to dismiss this as fanboy ranting.
Hold on a second, okay?
Let's go back over my record here on AICN. I've been rabid before, no doubt about it. One of the most effusive reviews I've ever written was for the first rough cut I saw of Brad Bird's THE IRON GIANT, in January of '99. I stand behind that completely. I think that film's a classic, the best of that particular year, and important in terms of American animation.
Never once did I say that I considered it one of the ten best films ever made. Never even suggested it.
I went completely apeshit mental when I saw the first EPISODE I trailer in the theater. I read that piece now and I blush. That's freakin' love you're reading there. But that was for a trailer, and I certainly wasn't the only person who went nutty for it.
My review for the actual film was far more tempered, cautious even. I started it by saying, "I feel a great disturbance in the Force tonight." I had misgivings about much of the movie, and I admired some of it as well. My feelings about it are pretty much the same now, and many people who went ballistic to one extreme or another have found themselves somewhere in the middle on the film now. I never had that moment where I proclaimed the film was some towering shining perfect thing. I never gave in to the hype.
I was excited about FIGHT CLUB before anyone I knew because of the Jim Uhls script that I read. Even when I heard miserable buzz about it from crew members who had moved on to other films, I was convinced there was something special en route. Early reviews got me very excited, and my two FIGHT CLUB reviews (it's one of the few films I went back to discuss again) still sum up my feelings on the movie. They're passionate, totally heartfelt. It's not for everyone, but it certainly was for me.
And in all these moments that I've liked a film or loved a film while writing for AICN, I've stayed away from certain hyperbolic traps. My infamously unfinished '90s lists made room for me to talk about any number of films because I believe that each year produces more than ten films worth talking about and remembering, and I hate limiting myself, shutting out interesting pictures. I've always been nervous about going too crazy about something, worried that I might hype it to a point where it couldn't deliver for an audience member.
For the first time, I don't have that fear.
I can't hype you up too much for FELLOWSHIP. It's that good. It's dense with detail, richly imagined, beautifully performed. The casting is exquisite, down to the smallest role in the film. The design of the thing is breathtaking. I found myself lost in the corners of the screen this morning, marvelling at the depth of Middle-Earth. This isn't some set, some backlot invention. This is a place, a real point in time and space that Peter Jackson has somehow managed to invade with his cameras and his actors. Actually, even that's not true, since these don't feel like actors. The faces may be familiar, but that's Gandalf the Grey. That's Frodo Baggins. That's certainly Samwise Gamgee. Who else could they be? I spent three hours with them, and I certainly believe they are who they claim to be. And those locations... I didn't realize half of those towers and castles were actually standing in New Zealand. Hell, I didn't realize the Shire was real. But I saw the evidence of these things with my own two eyes today. Rivendell... Lothlorien... the Mines of Moria... these are remarkably preserved, all things considered. I'm fascinated to learn more about the animal wrangler that had to handle the Ringwraith's horses, the Cave Troll, and the Balrog. Must've been a tough gig. Still, getting to visit such amazing places in the flesh is an adventure I envy each of the cast and crew, whether they're indigenous like Gimli and Legolas and the Hobbits, or just visiting like Boromir and Aragorn and Isildur.
What I'm trying to say in my own muddled and overexcited way is that the Age of Diminished Expectations is over. We may not have even realized we were living in it. Being a fan of modern film sometimes feels like living in THE MATRIX. There's this truth we try not to acknowledge, and we go out of our way to talk around it, to rationalize it away. But after sitting through FELLOWSHIP, it's impossible to keep up the charade.
God love 'em, the modern blockbuster is pretty much crap. Right across the board. Oh, sure, there's moments of glory in them. That's why they're blockbusters. And there are classics of the genre. STAR WARS. EMPIRE. RAIDERS. JAWS. These are great movies, movies that require no rationalization, movies that deliver on every level every time you watch them.
But somewhere along the way, the dream died. The Indiana Jones sequels suck. Yes, they do. Yes, they really do. Stop arguing. They do. And so does JEDI. Oh, sure, it's STAR WARS. And the Vader/Luke/Emperor stuff is great. But Ewoks? Jabba's palace? The drunk and surly Han Solo who seems to have replaced EMPIRE's charming rogue? Please. Don't try to sell me that.
See, we've all gotten used to diminished expectations, and we've made the adjustment. We accept a certain level of suck in our blockbusters. We just take it for granted. We will forgive a hell of a lot, it seems. JURASSIC PARK is a great example of a movie that, for the most part, sucks. But that T-Rex scene in the rain and the Raptors in the kitchen and that first shot of the Brachiosaur... that was magic, and it made us feel so good that we forgave. BATMAN is a piece of crap. It's claustrophobic, it seems almost completely retarded in terms of character, and there's not five minutes of film that feel like they were shot anywhere BUT a soundstage. But people liked Nicholson. And the suit was groovy. And that was enough. And we forgave.
When I saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK for the first time, there were at least ten moments that skewered me, that shot me in the forehead with the golden light of knowledge. Those moments were so right, so perfect, so glorious, that I would have forgiven anything. The reason RAIDERS stays high on my all-time list of films is because I didn't have to forgive anything. In addition to those ten moments, all the characterizations work. All the locations are perfect. All the set pieces deliver. Indiana Jones is flawlessly imagined as a character, instantly iconic. It's magic. It's lightning in a bottle.
We shouldn't have to forgive.
We shouldn't have to set our sights lower.
We do it every day with entertainment. We allow ourselves to be easily entertained. We watch bad TV because there's nothing else on. We buy shitty music because it's packaged well. And above all else, we swallow the hype over and over and we watch bad movies. We don't just watch them; we flock to them. We help them break box-office records. We give people entire careers making bad movie after bad movie. All because we have gotten used to it.
And then this mad little Kiwi invites this amazing group of actors and artisans to spend a few years at the ass end of the world, and everything changes. Three hours of film runs by, and you realize that miracles are possible. You remember what it meant to be in true awe of someone's ability to create. You see real magic performed right in front of your eyes, and your first reaction is disbelief because you simply can't be seeing what you're seeing.
I thought I'd spend the first part of the film adjusting, getting used to Jackson's version of things. I was sure there'd be a million little idiosyncratic personal things about the film that would make it too quirky for the mainstream, too cultish to ever cross over.
Instead, from the opening frame to the last, I believe FELLOWSHIP is an example of flawless, intelligent storytelling that can be understood and appreciated by anyone, anywhere.
I honestly can't imagine why anybody would be anything less than overwhelmed by what's here.
Galadriel's voice, haunted and sad, speaks of the change in the world that she feels as Howard Shore's score starts, soft at first, and we see the title for the first time: LORD OF THE RINGS. What Galadriel says may well be one of the most important things in the entire first film, as it hints at something that Peter Jackson also alludes to in the press notes for the movie.
"I am interested in themes about friendship and self-sacrifice. This is a story of survival and courage, about a touching last stand that paved the way for the ascent of humankind." - Peter Jackson
This is a story that is about not just one race, but all races, setting aside their differences in order to stop evil in whatever form it takes. There is something truly doomed about the elves and the hobbits and the dwarves, and it took me until the middle of the movie to figure it out.
Middle-Earth is not some other planet.
Middle-Earth is not meant to be fantasy.
In the work that Tolkien wrote and the film that Jackson made, Middle-Earth is a point in the real past of our world. Middle-Earth existed. These things we're watching are not fables meant to teach some simple moral lesson. These are the events that led to the rise of man in the world. These are the days in which all these amazing creatures and beings gave themselves so that we might pick up the pieces and continue on.
And they all knew it was happening.
And they did it anyway.
There is a profound sadness to the film, a sense of a permanent autumn rolling in. Jackson is wise to start the film with history that has already passed into myth as far as most of the denziens of Middle-Earth are concerned. He shows how easy it is for truth to become past, and past to become legend, and legend to become myth. The story of Sauron and the forging of the One Ring is explained in crystal clarity with a startling glimpse of battle on a level we've never seen on film. No one has ever marshalled film armies of the size we see here. The way the Ring passes into the hands of Isildur, the heir of Gondor, and the way it escapes him, finds Gollum, and eventually ends up in the possession of Bilbo Baggins, it's masterful visual storytelling. At no point is there a crush of information that's impossible to digest. Instead, Jackson and his co-writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh have done a remarkable job of boiling this all down and laying it out. Things are repeated. Peter gently prods at just the right moments, connecting things, underlining the significance without drawing attention to his own directorial hand. By the time the prologue ends, I believed completely in the world and in the story. I was ready for anything.
And when we find Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) leaned up against a tree, reading a book, not a care in the world, it is enough to take my breath away. Here is the last second of real quiet before the storm, the last moment of innocence. This is when everything begins. This is that first step out the door that Bilbo spoke of. And it all starts with a hobbit reading and the sound of a wizard singing on the afternoon wind.
Gandalf (Ian McKellen) rolls into the Shire just in time for the 111th birthday party of Bilbo (Ian Holm), and as he's joined by Frodo, we see him ride across Hobbiton, giving us a look at the place and the people who live there. It doesn't feel like a place that was built for a movie. It feels lived in. It feels like a place you could go and visit, like a location they found. The Shire is achingly beautiful. Gandalf is a "disturber of the peace," according to most of the good hobbits in the area, and Gandalf defends himself against the accusation by Frodo, making mention of "that business with the dragon." It's one of many subtle allusions to THE HOBBIT, Tolkein's original novel, and it adds to the sense of history as things begin. I love the scenes of Bilbo at his birthday party, telling the story to a group of adorable hobbit children. Holm is remarkable in his brief time onscreen, as is most of the sprawling cast. Peter Jackson seems to apply actors to roles the way Van Gogh applied paint to a canvass; there's a sort of madness to it when first viewed, but there's a perfection that is revealed upon closer scrutiny. The birthday party is a wonderful set piece to open the film with. Jackson finds grace notes in almost every shot of the film, always giving us some revealing detail, some perfect touch, some reason to keep watching. When Gandalf and Bilbo come face to face after the party in Bag End, it's our first hint at how emotionally powerful the film is going to be. Visual power is well-established by this point, but during this scene, there is such remarkable work by both actors that all thoughts of effects and editing and makeup and such disappear. Suspension of disbelief is something that you are sometimes required to work harder at, depending on the film. Here, there's no choice. These actors believe it completely, and they draw you into the world. Bilbo is corrupted by the Ring, but on a subtle, personal level. Only when he tries to leave it behind does the Ring's grip finally reveal itself.
And Jackson has made The Ring a character, no doubt about it. The Ring has a will of its own. It has a hunger. It grows and shrinks depending on whose finger it wants to fit. It can find its way onto a finger at just the right moment. There is a sense of malice to its behavior over the course of the film. It is constantly trying to escape Frodo after he accepts the quest to destroy it. It tempts everyone it comes in contact with. It has a voice, a whispered hiss, the sound of seduction. Frodo's relationship with The Ring is played out with an almost eerie grace by Elijah Wood, who steps up as one of the finest actors of his age working today with this film. As good as he's been in the past, the work he does here is transforming. He is an astonishing avatar for us, the viewer, a hero worth following. Much of the film is defined in the way he interacts with the rest of the cast, and it's the support they offer to Wood that makes each of them great in their own way.
Shall we talk of McKellen first? He is a marvel, the very model of a great film actor. I've never been lucky enough to see him onstage, but he's considered a genius in terms of live performance. That does not always make someone a good film actor. McKellen has done wonderful work on film before, but in this particular role, he comes to full and vivid life in a way I've never seen. He conveys the full range of emotion in the smallest of gestures with those incredible, expressive eyes of his. He uses his smile to precise effect at several points in the film. Gandalf's love of the hobbits is very strong in the film, demonstrated in any number of gestures and looks, and when he stands up against a threat, whether it be from Saruman, a cave troll, a wave of goblins, or a Balrog, he is imposing, a genuine power. There are a number of moments where we see Gandalf thinking, where we see him make connections with information, and McKellen lets us in, behind his eyes. He is the glue that makes the insanely complicated first half of the film work so well, seem so effortless. And his exit from this particular chapter of the series is iconic, a moment of such pure and perfect cinema that even now, I can't believe I saw it onscreen. When I saw the Mines of Moria sequence on the Cannes reel earlier this year, some very clever edits had been made to it so as to preserve some of the best moments for the final theatrical experience. The Balrog we see in this film, this creature of shadow and fire, is truly unique in the annals of film. It is as epic an image as Harryhausen's Talos, but detailed in a way that even Harryhausen wasn't able to accomplish. When it inhales, and its insides seem to light up with flame, or when it produces a whip made of flame, this is an entirely new and convincing form of Hell made real, a nightmare sprung to terrifying life. And McKellen faces it down in a way that is believable. He makes us fear for him because we can see it in his eyes: this thing is real. This threat is serious.
And speaking of eyes, what of Viggo Mortensen? How is his performance as Aragorn, also known as Strider? At first glance, he seems to be playing the familiar scoundrel/warrior archetype we've seen before, the Han Solo figure sitting in the pub, taking it all in. But Mortensen, an actor I've been hypnotized by ever since his explosive work in Sean Penn's THE INDIAN RUNNER, is determined not to play what we expect, and as a result, Aragorn is no film hero I've seen. He has a heart open enough to confess his love for Arwen, a sword arm powerful enough to face down five Ringwraiths or a small army of Uruk-Hai by himself, and a sense of duty strong enough to resist the siren call of the Ring when sorely tempted.
Sean Bean, on the other hand, is a revelation here because of the brilliant way he captures the conflict that rages inside Boromir. No easy bad guy, Boromir is a good man who stumbles. He believes in the glory of Gondor, and his description of it is one of the film's best quiet moments. His redemption at the end of the film leads to one of the most wrenching film deaths I've seen in quite a while. Each arrow that is shot into Boromir, I felt deeply. The sound design during this scene is one of those little details that makes me giddy about Peter Jackson. The performances between Mortensen and Bean in those final moments are electric and quite moving. I've always hated Sean Bean's work in the past. Quite literally, I've felt that he ruined films in the past with his mere presence or lack thereof. Here, though, I found myself weeping bitter tears for this weak man who finds unexpected strength at just the right moment.
There were two other moments that sent tears down my cheeks. There's a moment of powerful beauty when Frodo first sees Bilbo in Rivendell, sitting on a bench, THERE AND BACK AGAIN open on his lap. It hit me somewhere deep, and I can't even explain why. It just suddenly felt so real to me. And at the end of the film, there is a moment between Sam and Frodo that convinces me we are going to see them rewarded with Oscars in 2003 as Best Actor and Best Supporting. I had lunch with Sean and Elijah about two weeks after they returned to the U.S. after shooting the movie. It was me, Mongo, Harry, and Sam and Frodo. Sitting at that table, what I saw was a pair of tight friends, guys who had shared some amazing adventure and had reached that point where they had a private language. They spoke about the unique nature of the shoot, and they spoke in glowing terms about the rest of the cast and Jackson in particular. I've talked to a lot of actors over the years, but I don't think I've ever seen anything like the obvious love and faith they felt towards these films, and seeing the final result here, I can understand why.
I've been dying to know about Christopher Lee in the film. I'm an admirer of his from childhood, and I was thrilled when he was announced as part of the cast. Now that I've seen his work as Saruman, I am in awe of Jackson. He cast Lee perfectly, and he gets great work out of this legendary actor. When he and McKellen face off against each other in the wizard's duel that has purists worried, it is a terrifying display of what Saruman is capable of. It's even more frightening when you think back on it. We see Gandalf do some amazing things after escaping on the back of an eagle, and we see some amazing displays of strength from him. When you remember how easily Saruman threw Gandalf around, you get a real sense of how big a danger he can be. He breeds the Uruk-Hai at the request of the Eye of Sauron, and there is an unholy pride in his work that makes him one of the most memorable madmen I can remember in any film.
Then there's Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, and Hugo Weaving. Literally all of the major speaking cast does wonderful work at some point in the film. Astin's Sam is a faithful and courageous fellow, played to perfection by an actor I feel is highly underrated. I hope people finally start to appreciate how generous a performer he seems to be. Bloom and Rhys-Davies are appropriately badass, stalwart representatives of their respective races. There are hero shots of Legolas that will make any sharp-eyed viewer giddy, and I have no idea how they managed to pull off the height trick with Gimli so consistently and gracefully. Boyd and Monaghan are not just comic relief as Pippin and Merry; far from it. They are drawn into events in a comical way, but when things become serious, they reveal hearts every bit as stout as those of Frodo and Sam. Merry in particular has an ability to focus, to really make a difference. Blanchett's Galadriel is quite wondrous, and her moment of temptation when facing the One Ring is both rapturously beautiful and very upsetting. When she resists the temptation and speaks of her plans, saying, "I will allow myself to diminish now," it's achingly sad. Like the rest of the elves, she knows their days in Middle Earth are ending. Liv Tyler speaks in sheer music as Arwen, her lilting Elvish dialogue being one of the most direct sensory pleasures of the film. Hugo Weaving is precise and hypnotic as Elrond, and when we see him in the opening sequence fighting Sauron or in a flashback as he tries to convince Isildur to destroy the One Ring while they have a chance at the lip of Mount Doom, he is impossible to look away from.
Trying to name a favorite moment from the film is an exercise in futility. So many images and incidents come rushing up at the same time, each of them enough for me to recommend a film by itself. There's the first shot of Gollum we see, or the way the world looks when Frodo slips on the Ring, or the sight of the Black Rider at the side of the road, so close to the Hobbits, its presence causing the very worms to boil up out of the earth in fear, desperate to escape. There's the moment when Arwen faces down the Black Riders and they try to cross the river. There's the sequence with the moth. There's the Watcher in the Water heaving its massive body up onto the shore of the lake in pursuit of the Fellowship. There's Gandalf sitting on the back of an eagle, soaring across mountain peaks. You may think I'm spoiling things, that I'm giving too much away, but I've barely scratched the surface.
I could go on and on, and I might. I might have to see this film again and just pick up where I left off, praising that which has just begun to sink in. But right now, after this first viewing, I have a feeling that I've only had a few times in my life. I have found that elusive first high all over again, and I am positively sodden with the possibility of film. If I could embrace Peter Jackson tonight to say thank you, and if I could shake his hand, I would. I would commend him on having become a world-class filmmaker, a giant. Then I would jump him, wrestle him to the ground, and eat his brain in an effort to absorb his knowledge. This guy has just upped the stakes for everyone else. After the movie today, my buddy and I went to Mel's in Hollywood, right across from the new Hollywood & Highland project. We sat and ate and talked about LOTR, trying to absorb everything, trying to come down from the experience. As we stood to leave, I checked my pocket to make sure I had my keys, a nervous habit more than anything. I've had the same keychain, an oversized plastic Darth Maul, since about March of '99. It's been impervious to all harm. Yet today, of all days, as I checked on my keys, the keychain simply snapped, and Darth Maul fell to the floor, landing face down.
I looked up at my buddy, and an impish grin lit him up. "I'd call that symbolic. Definitely."
I'd like to close with a quick heads-up to New Line: the print that you showed Wednesday at the Chaplin Theater at Raleigh Studios at 11:00 AM should be pulled from circulation. There were horrific soundtrack problems on two different reels. One was at Rivendell, and one was just after leaving the Mines of Moria. I'm sure this isn't an overall mastering problem. It just sounded like the soundtrack itself was encoded wrong for those particular reels. The rest of the film was breathtaking in terms of sound design, so I have to assume I just lucked out and saw a bum print for that 40 minutes or so. It was frustrating, but even something as glaring as that couldn't derail the incredible work that was unspooling before my eyes.
I am impatient now, worse than every before. I want THE TWO TOWERS. I need RETURN OF THE KING. I want to take every step of the journey with Frodo and Sam and Gandalf and Aragorn and Pippin and Merry and all the others. I want to meet Wormtongue and Treebeard and Shelob and more.
And in the meantime, I vow to quit settling. I have decided that I am done forgiving. I have seen that it can be done, that real perfection is possible in film, and I am not willing to settle anymore.
Peter Jackson, you magnificent bastard, you have broken my heart and given me more hope than you can possibly understand all in one fell swoop. I am in love with your movie. And for the record, the ten films I love most are:
1. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
3. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
5. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
6. FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
7. THE ROAD WARRIOR
8. DUCK SOUP
9. TAXI DRIVER
That's not hyperbole. That's not oversell. That's the instant recognition of something that will be part of my life from now until I am no longer watching movies or drawing breath, whichever comes first.
I am exhausted now, but I know that I will not sleep when I close my eyes. I will see this movie play out again on the dark screen of my sealed lids. I will play the score and I will lay in bed, and I will see the movie again.