Ten years ago, New Line Cinema took a gamble by handing over a buttload of money to a horror filmmaker from New Zealand and ended up with the cinematic milestone that is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In his second re-view for this site, Ignacio Peña reaches through time to assess the first film’s power and how it relates to both his past (i.e. his senior year of high school) and his present (i.e. he currently lives in New Zealand and does previs work on a little film project called The Hobbit.)
Anyone who knows me well will tell you immediately that I have a tremendous amount of catching up to do when it comes to essential film viewing. Due to the fact that my parents quite strictly adhered to rating classifications when I was growing up, I simply missed many of the things so many people loved and considered classics: Jaws, Aliens, Close Encounters, The Godfather, Blade Runner — well, you get the picture. Over the past few years, I’ve made a concerted effort to try and catch up. I hear the same thing over and over from everyone I meet. “[Insert Infallible Movie Title here] is the greatest movie ever made,” and I’ll just shrug my shoulders because I’ve finally seen it and it was just “ok.” To me, it just wasn’t as good as Lord of the Rings.
When Fellowship of the Ring was unleashed upon my seventeen-year-old mind, I was in the middle of my senior year Christmas break. After the first two theater viewings, I went back again three more times just to experience the storming rage of the Balrog in the depths of Khazad-dum, to be swept away in the tragic death of Boromir, son of Denethor. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen it since over the last decade, but even to this day when I watched it again for this review, none of its potency has been lost.
Fellowship in particular is a bit of a curious film. Many people I talk to about the Rings trilogy always point to the first as being the best of the three. I’ll agree that it’s certainly the most focused; it’s trying to do the least of the three movies, and this has always been its greatest strength. Whenever I think about the movie, so much of it is basically just a bunch of actors running around a forest with cameras and swords role-playing, and it’s a wonder so many people were swept away by it. I remember the month of November before release being a strange time in high school. Everyone had seen me carrying around the book during lunch and in the library and when the time came closer to the film’s release, many of my classmates in school would always ask me if they would like the movie, and if they didn’t, that somehow I’d be responsible for their displeasure. Having no knowledge of the film’s actual quality beforehand, I assured them that it would indeed be awesome. I didn’t actually expect many of them to like it of course, but when school started again in January, it’s all they could talk to me about. They wanted to know what happened next. I knew then that something had changed, and it was exciting. I found myself between classes teasing them about the Battle of the Hornburg, of horrors Frodo and Sam would have to face alone, of the great battle at the Pelennor Fields. In short, I found myself sharing my excitement of tales of fantasy with people I never imagined I could hold with. I didn’t realize then how much Rings would change the landscape of movies forever. You only even have to look as far as Harry Potter to wonder whether we would have seen that film series get its proper due had it not been for what Rings achieved. As far as I was aware, fantasy movies suddenly became a new form of dramatic art.
Just look at Fellowship, and consider for a minute who the villain of the movie is. Is it Sauron? Is it the One Ring? Both are forces that everyone fears and despairs over. But what I’ve always felt was genius about Fellowship is that throughout the film, the true antagonist is the evil within all the heroes that are just waiting to be released. There’s no ultimate villain with a mask that needs to be defeated; the journey itself is a test that will break the heroes of their will and fortitude. I remember getting into arguments with a friend in high school over the character of Boromir. He hated him. He was glad to see him die. I never understood that. What happened to Boromir is a tragedy, and was one of the most moving storylines throughout the whole film. He’s always been my favorite example of a flawed hero, of a man whose hopes for the future have driven him to despair and that even the strongest of the men of Gondor could fall. His death is bittersweet, even for the audience, because you’re not really sure if you can forgive his treachery even after his valiant death. Even as he’s dying, all he wants is for his home. And while the battles with orcs and trolls and wraiths rages on throughout the rest of the tale, none are quite as heart-wrenching as seeing Frodo finally succumb to the Ring so close to the end.
To me, that’s a horrifying notion: that given the right amount of encouragement, there is in all of us the potential to become what we fear or hate the most. But that’s a subtle sort of fear that’s applied throughout the movies. And it’s one that doesn’t really begin until they reach Rivendell. I’ve only recently started noticing this, but the first half of the movie is actually kind of strange to me when compared to the rest of the film(s). It plays almost like a horror or suspense movie. From the moment Bilbo disappears, the movie essentially becomes a claustrophobic chase film until they reach Rivendell, when the movie realizes it’s actually a sprawling epic. I understand why it’s done, too; it’s the most exciting way to get them to Rivendell, but it’s always been the weakest bit of the whole series for me.
The film has a few other flaws that I’ve never been able to get over either. Throughout the whole trilogy, there was only one elf that I thought was perfectly cast, and that was Galadriel. Cate Blanchett is stunning in this movie, and when I think of what an elf should look like, her striking features and mysterious demeanor fit perfectly. I can’t say the same for any other elf in the movies. Arwen annoys me more and more with each viewing. I think the problem is in her delivery. She seems to confuse a distant mysteriousness with out-of-breath whispers and it verges on comical. I’ve never been able to take her seriously and I never will. Similarly, Hugo Weaving as Elrond is equally strange. He’s got a regal tone about him but he’s hideous as an elf. Come to think of it, I don’t think I was ever really happy with any of the male elfs cast in the Rings movies. They’re the only ones I really felt were just cosplaying their roles whenever they were on screen.
Ok, so basically the elves bothered me. I must just be dwarven at heart. It’s probably fitting then that I’m working on The Hobbit now and am responsible for making exciting things happen to thirteen different dwarves. Perhaps my year on the project has colored my affinity to favor the free-folk over the elves as a general principle.
Ten years, three Rings movies, an English degree and an animation minor later, I find myself writing this in New Zealand during my Christmas holiday from my fulltime job, which is at Weta Digital, where I’ve been working on The Hobbit movies for over a year now. In fact this very week, the world finally caught its first glimpse at footage from the first official trailer, and the majority of people weighing in has been the same: everyone feels like they’ve gone back ten years in time to when Fellowship was first released. I’m actually friends and coworkers now with people who worked on Fellowship a decade ago. It’s a position I never thought I would actually find myself in. It’s exciting to think that maybe someday, ten years from now, someone else will watch The Hobbit multiple times over shots I crafted in previs, in the same way I kept going back just to see the Balrog. One can only hope.
And speaking of the Balrog, I’m so impressed as to how well the movie has visually held up. Sure there’s an occasional matte line that doesn’t quite look right (look at the shot of Gandalf and Bilbo in Bag End by the fireplace when talking about leaving the Ring to Frodo) or a stray digi-double that looks really animated (such as Legolas on the Troll in Moria). However, nothing really feels dated. I find that recent movies heavy on FX always have this softly-lit look to them that I didn’t notice in movies ten years ago, and to me it always makes it look too fake. Fellowship and its two successors don’t suffer the same fate, but my love for these movies may just be coloring my bias.
In the end, these films endure because of a deep earnestness in the characters that I’ve never seen replicated in subsequent fantasy films. I may be jumping ahead here, but whose heart didn’t ache when Faramir was departing Minas Tirith to certain doom at the command of his maddening father, at his words “Where does my allegiance lie if not here?” Who has forgotten Gandalf’s words to Frodo when he wishes he had never had the ring? Who didn’t wish for a different fate for Boromir when he pledges his allegiance to Aragorn as his final breaths left his body? I’ve actually watched the trilogy three times in the last year and each time these moments are only amplified with every viewing. You could feel how much every actor loved the tale they were a part in. It’s why these films aren’t just magnificent; it’s a tale worth remembering for years and years to come.