Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001, Peter Jackson)

!! CAUTION !!

There was a time when Peter Jackson seemed like someone special. Idiosyncratic works like Dead Alive, The Frighteners, and Heavenly Creatures came across as the birth of a new and distinctive voice. But Jackson also shares an infatuation alongside George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, so many other young-in-hearts for fantastic stories of little human application with pointlessly convoluted plots and deathly stupid — okay, I’ll stop there. It’s difficult for me to review fantasy films, for the same reason it’s difficult for me to review horror films, sci-fi films, westerns, war films, even a lot of modern comedies. Genres don’t do it for me. There’s every reason to suspect that the Lord of the Rings films are not as bad as they look to me, just as J.R.R. Tolkien’s literature, which I read as mindnumbingly dull and close to incomprehensible, is probably not as bad as the way it appears to my malformed brain. But good lord, whatever it is does look pretty awful from these eyes, I must admit. And now that we’ve come across the reality that Jackson is poised to spend another three years on Tolkien’s towering goblin parades I suppose I’m in for more of my treasured cultural alienation, which is part of what makes this blog so damn curmudgeonly and awful. Fun, right?

To be honest, while I sympathize with anyone who likes something I don’t understand by virtue of the fact that most of us like things other people are bound not to understand, I find it incredible that so many millions of filmgoers are willing to go on board with Jackson’s long-winded films of the LOTR novels; of course, said legions of people would maybe ask why a person would willingly seat themselves in front of a black and white or subtitled film. Which is fine, absolutely, we’re all in different wheelhouses, but it’s fascinating to me how this appears to me like everything a mass popcorn movie-loving audience would seem destined to loathe, so lengthy and convoluted and difficult to follow. Each of the three runs about 180 minutes, but talk to one of the legions of fans and you’re bound to be told that what you really need is to watch the even longer Extended Editions. I have to respect that people can put up with this thrashing for twelve hours. Did I take one for the team and try that for this second stab at sitting through these films? Good Lord, fuckno. I’d rather drink paint, sincerely. I am trying to get across how tortuous fantasy films are for me to watch and I just can’t; it’s worse than bad stand-up, worse than bad erotica, worse than five straight hours of Mitt Romney at a fundraising dinner. But I’m not convinced it’s because the genre is bad so much as that I don’t understand it. But there’s a caveat.

And that is that my second time through has convinced me that The Fellowship of the Ring is a bad movie. Please note (and I shouldn’t have to clarify this), I’m not arguing people are wrong to feel otherwise, but I’m saying that whereas something like Pan’s Labyrinth I don’t have any strong criticisms of, yet I still don’t like or enjoy it, Fellowship has what I see as serious, serious problems. Not even covering the parts that correspond to genre conventions, i.e. the stacking to the brim with indistinguishable characters, battles, and very dramatic and so very serious monologues by men, dwarfs, women, and Jar Jar Binks. Structurally, the thing’s a disaster: an hour and a half of exposition, an hour of incoherent action scenes, and half an hour of hugging. Said exposition is needlessly cutesy and interminable, with good actors like Ian McKellen and competent ones like Elijah Wood mugging to the tune of horribly childish nonsense that’s treated as kiddie flick fodder. That’s an improvement on the George Lucas philosophy, which would be to treat all this garbage as if it were super-relevant and mythologically deep, but it’s hard to invest in a nine-hour saga when it starts out looking like self-parody thanks to the over-the-top facial expressions and community-theater pantomime. As for the hugging, the characters don’t earn the attachment that Jackson and composer Howard Shore clearly expect in order to wring our sympathies at the climax and conclusion. They’re all cardboard, with no real-world relevance whatsoever. I’m sure the story has metaphoric and artistic value on some level I can’t sense, but at what point does Jackson actually harness this in any imaginative or witty fashion? In this first film, at least, he never does.

On top of this, Jackson, whose movies prior to this were comparatively low-key affairs, proves himself a rather poor action director, with the more complicated scenes invariably difficult to follow and badly edited, shot like some unholy cross between a Nick Jr. cartoon, a Terry Gilliam movie, and a particularly stupid music video. The CG special effects are uniformly awful and already dated, so the only visual merit comes from the lovely New Zealand locations, which the film is too hyperactive to let us really enjoy.

But fine, yeah. Top ten movies of all time. Sure. Whatever. My point is that what I say about these movies doesn’t matter; not that what I say about any movie matters, but the LOTR flicks are so far from my territory it’s fair to say I never would have watched them if not for my “duties” to this “blog.” Things like this make me stupid and huffy. At least the Star Wars movies are shorter, and a couple of them have decently interesting stories and/or own their own stupidity. Peter Jackson is obviously a more gifted director than Lucas —- I doubt even Lucas would debate that —- which only makes LOTR‘s off-the-wall goofiness look worse. Obviously Jackson cared a great deal about this wretched Tolkien junk, so he did the hell out of it; the result may be a monument to literary adaptation (and that only applies if you can tolerate the author, I’d assume), but it absolutely is not a movie or a contribution of any significant value to film art. Jackson throws everything he can into the running time, so there’s a marked lack of decisionmaking; LOTR is about J.R.R. Tolkien and his legion of admirers and what they want to see on the screen, and that doesn’t interest me. Fantasy buffs try to pretend their genre of choice is some kind of persecuted minority, which of course is preposterous. Not only is this one of the most successful series of films in history, millions of people live their lives by fantasy novels and films; people base their philosophies of life, ethics codes, and moral outlooks on Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, The Bible, etc. And I do not exaggerate when I say they’re all essentially the fucking same from my perch, which isn’t to say I’m superior to any of it (or that I’m not!), but just: I don’t get it, and hence this review and others within the genres in question in the future are likely to have little purpose. Just ranting for my own benefit here.

[Modified version of a review posted at my old blog in 2007.]

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