A lot can happen in 25 years, and in the fast-paced, high-budgeted land of hollywood, a lot has. So much so, in fact, that an influential movie of a generation, “Star Wars,” really does seem like it came out a long, long time ago, from a galaxy far, far away. Yet the 1977 film, once at the peak of visual effects, still one of the top 10 earning films ever, continues to be admired by its fans. Moreover still is one of the all-time greatest movies ever. It Peter Jackson’s rendition of “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” hyped as the “Star Wars” for a new generation.
The movie’s rocket start at the box office — $205 million after 19 days and more than $350 million worldwide, is fueled by a huge fan base for J. R. R. Tolkien’s 20th century “Lord of the Rings” books. The CGI-loaded fantasy is everything that makes a contemporary Hollywood action film famouse. It has an epic story, it’s visually stunning and it has deep thoughts behind it that gives the action life. The first installment of the three-part series remains faithful to the heart of Tolkien’s novel.
LOTR” and “Star Wars” share a long list of thematic similarities. They’re both mythical creature fantasies determined on rescuing good from the authority of evil. Both feature circumstantial heroes who make Wizard of Oz like journeys and come of age in the process. There are also dozens of external similarities. Both movies feature mentors who duel evil doers atop narrow passageways, as well as secondary villains, Darth Vader and Saruman the White, both deserters to the dark side, both fond of supernatural violence, who provide the more visible nemesis.
Along the way, both heroes come across women in white gowns, true friends, sidekicks playing for laughs and faceless drones (Storm Troopers and orcs). Both make use of mystical languages, mystical spiritual beliefs and key scenes in bars and in swamp-like pits (compare the swamp at the gates of Moria with the garbage chute in the Death Star). Far simpler than Tolkien’s complex world of Middle-earth, the universe of “Star Wars” is more similar to our own. Appropriately, “Star Wars” is the more human of the two movies, infusing each major character with thematic clarity befitting flesh-and-blood action heroes.
Bring to mind Luke Skywalker’s impatient dreamer, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s involved and steady-handed mentor, Leia’s up-beat rebel princess, Han Solo’s self-serving cynic, and remember that all four go through individual transformation: Luke learns to use the Force, Obi-Wan sacrifices himself for the rebel cause, Leia becomes less cold hearted and Han learns to care about others. Lucas even delineates the droids: C3PO as the talkative killjoy, R2D2 the headstrong one, with a child prankster like attitude. Without doubt, the vigor of Lucas’ pop icons have formed many a exemplars for others to extensively study his script
Accordingly, the “Star Wars” universe is just a setting for what is inevitably a highly compelling, if not entirely original, story. “Star Wars” makes use of technical-sounding slang to give itself a sci-fi feel, but it is clear at all times that any film requires the four main elements of entertainment: plot, character, story arc, dramatic tension. For example, Luke’s Uncle Owen argues with the Jawas about the capabilities of various droids, but the point is not to show off noncence argueing but rather to show the humor in the haggling rug-merchant tactics of an aggressive little Jawa.
Star Wars” is only a movie, and it never loses sight of that. It doesn’t aim higher, and doesn’t have to. As a result, “Star Wars” keeps from pretending its heroes are anything other than flawed humans. Yet, Lucas’ movie does not keep from displaying the reality of human struggle: In reference to the inferiority of droids (“We don’t serve their kind here”), Lucas allows bits of cruel reality, things like prejudice to leak into his world.
The Star Wars world being on the same side does not guarantee people will get along: Darth Vader comes very close to strangling a few of his own kin, and as for Luke, his rivalry with Han is the kind you would expect from the ideal kid brother. In “Star Wars,” humanity is the point. In “LOTR,” with all of the fans and followers, Tolkien’s world is the point. The whole book is surrounded by it. There ist even thought of anywhere else. Fanatics in any realm are difficult to satisfy, but Tolkien’s are the type who engage in prolonged, heated debate over authenticity, all the way down to the technical accuracy of props.
An unauthorized photograph of a spiked wheel taken on set created a global rift among faithful readers before the film came out. ) Just in making the movie, Jackson shouldered enormous challenges safeguarding it against similar nitpicking. So meticulous is Tolkien’s Middle-earth, with its genealogy charts and linguistic consistency, and so loyal Jackson and his crew to its detail, “LOTR” becomes a sort of glorified video trivia game, with dense graphics and a relentless pace. But there’s a price for detail. For one thing, “LOTR’s” characters are uneven.
Take Gandalf. One moment he’s a reassuring wizard, the next he’s shoving the young hobbit Frodo squarely out Bag End’s plump little door with nothing but a tense, hasty goodbye. Strider, one of the two men in the fellowship, is drawn with equivalent blotchiness: This gentle figure of incorruptible royalty makes his entrance on the screen as a noisome, pushy bully. You could make the case that his introduction allows a Prince Hal-like transformation, but at Jackson’s rushed pace it plays more like a quick suspense device that cheapens the character.
That kind of horse-trading is the movie’s chief weakness. “LOTR’s” characters are to its plot as rapids are to a raft: They move the story along. Everyone knows the next plot point will bring the next visual extravaganza, and the filmmakers seemingly did not have the patience, or the interest, in slowing down the visual progress. Certainly, as the escape from humanity Tolkien intended, Middle Earth operates by its own rules.
But as human entertainment, the film would be meaningless without the emotion that comes from human truth — the kind of emotion that a couple of Enya songs on the soundtrack cannot deliver. “LOTR” harbors some real emotion, but comparatively speaking it is presumptuous and finite. As the reluctant hero, the worried, one-dimensional Frodo Baggins comes up short against Luke Skywalker, a young, impatient man with a sense of loyalty that tempers his desire for adventure, and it’s not something one can summarily blame on Elijah Wood’s wrinkled forehead.
At first, Frodo takes the ring just to follow Gandalf’s orders. Later, when he meets the council, his offer to carry the ring to Mordor plays at best like a simple act of bravery, or at worst an impulsive decision that runs against his initial reluctance. But having made the offer, not until the very end of the film does he actually stop trying to give the ring away, and even then he seems far from convinced. As for the other members of the Fellowship, film audiences aren’t given enough information for their sense of instant duty to be compelling.
Whence comes hobbit buddy Sam Gamgee’s unswerving dedication to Frodo? Certainly not from the cowardice he showed under a furious Gandalf (again, this seems like comedy at the expense of character). And the loyalty of the two other undifferentiated hobbit sidekicks seems even more unlikely. Pointing to the book doesn’t work: Jackson very clearly wants his movie to stand alone. Both “Star Wars” and “LOTR” have weird, racist undertones: For example, black is always bad. But superficially, Middle-earth appears to be a haven from discrimination.
Although there are certainly what passes for racial stereotypes, with greedy dwarves and flawed humans and stately, noble elves. ) This smacks of pretense: Hobbits are addressed merrily throughout as “Halflings. ” Likewise, there is little infighting on the same side of the conflict — everyone seems to know the human warrior Boromir is a potential bad seed (in his Hamlet-esque torture chamber, Sean Bean’s ambiguity is beautifully played), but no one confronts him about it, or even keeps him under any sort of special Ring Thief alert.
The insufficient development of emotions and character handicaps the movie’s ability to make us laugh. Like Gandalf’s fireworks, brief moments of shallow, situational humor dissolve swiftly into the night, subsumed by biblical solemnity: “The time of Elves is over,” “The race of men is weak” and “There is evil there that does not sleep. ” Jackson could have at least tried to elicit laughter from moments of bizarre incongruity: For example, elf queen Galadriel’s know-it-all reply to Lord Celeborn when he demanded to know where Gandalf was.
But they go untouched. In a moment of direct comparison with “Star Wars,” when Frodo and associates stop short of a precipice, the moment passes with neither comment nor the clever wringing of comedy from clich. And realism? “LOTR’s” odds step straight out of a Hong Kong karate movie. Nine warriors fighting armies of orcs and other unattractive horrors suffer but two casualties, and both die emphatically with deliberation — with three arrows in his chest, Boromir pulls a great Eveready bunny act — again, the moment calls for not even a snicker.
Whether attributable to logic or frugality with extras, Lucas dispatched his Storm Troopers in a trickle. ) That’s not “LOTR’s” only suspension of logic: Apparently, when Hobbits turn invisible, you can hear their footsteps on concrete but not through dry foliage. And it is surprisingly easy to distract a ring wraith from his immortal duty with a piece of food thrown desperately from a makeshift hiding place. True, some of this depends on what you want from the movies.
Standards have changed — our 21st-century expectations define “show” to mean “show everything. ” And here, digital tricks stand in for old-fashioned imagination; we see a schlocky image of a talking eye slit rather than visualize our own image of something far more evil. That image is hardly the only thing getting in the way of the story. “LOTR” is an epic; it’s as macrocosmic as “Star Wars” (a fairy tale intimately involved with its good guys) is microcosmic. And the existence of a well-read, well-loved book handicaps “LOTR.
The book is a vehicle that allows shortcuts: Although Jackson compacts “The Hobbit” admirably in a few fact-bulging minutes for those who haven’t read it, the missing background nevertheless leaves fundamental loopholes. For example, who are these wizards and why do they care? Where does Frodo go when he puts the ring on? How is it that Cate Blanchett can read everyone’s mind? And what makes an orc inherently bad, aside from the fact that it’s ugly? Obviously, making a movie out of a novel is not a cut-and-paste operation.
Although a flawed film, “The English Patient” proved that the best adaptations are willing to murder characters and subplots as readily as they dismiss the internal wanderings of a novel. The visual translation of a thick volume into mere hours takes merciless loyalty to the new form, at a potential sacrifice to the old. In other words, had Jackson been more generous with his creative machete, he might have rivaled the book with a translation that truly stands on its own, rather than resorting to inevitable reference to the volumed set.
The verdict? “LOTR” isn’t a bad movie, but its wide acclaim shows just how much our story standards have declined, even as our visual standards have skyrocketed. Maybe filmmakers could learn an ironic lesson from “Star Wars. ” Even though that film was a pioneer in both sound and visual technology, its relative restraint, compared with today’s Hollywood offerings, brings to mind the wisdom of an aged Jedi Knight. Today’s studios need to “switch off their targeting computers,” aka their fancy technology, in order to “feel the force” in moviemaking.