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Outstanding but confusing for Tolkien neophytes
on June 10, 2002
Visually, Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring might be the most impressive film ever made. Within the first ten minutes your jaw has dropped at least four or five times, and as the film progresses it never stops delivering the viewer sumptuous, imaginary worlds that feel real, even tangible.
Unlike the new Star Wars trilogy, Jackson's new trilogy seems to understand that audiences don't just need eye candy, but a combination of characters, plot, and effects that work as a whole to bring you somewhere you've never been before. And if you have read the books (which I have not), it still probably can't prepare you for just how fully realized Jackson has made Tolkien's Middle Earth. It is alternately ethereal, menacing, and best of all feasible. It looks like a real place, and it looks like it has been actually lived in. This sounds easy, but it's the failing of many sci-fi/fantasy films. Most treat their sets as either museum spaces so pristine you'd think the characters were forbidden to cough, or as futuristic garbage dumps that couldn't house a rabid dog, much less an actual person. Here, Middle Earth fascinates you, and you soon envision yourself in it.
FOTR has been described as a foundation-laying first step in the trilogy, and in that sense it is a success. Essentially a three hour chase after a ring that does some very, very nasty things, it picks up new characters as it goes along, and this is where the film has its major flaw. While the characters played by Cate Blanchett, Sean Bean, and Liv Tyler may be readily identified by Tolkien readers, they remain elusive to the series' newcomers. Those characters, and others, are barely introduced, much less fleshed out. So the events involving them can be confusing and, at times, irrelevant.
Of course, that leaves more room for the audience to become better acquainted with Elijah Wood's Frodo and Ian McKellen's Gandalf. And that's where the movies succeeds the best. The audience sees Middle Earth through Frodo's eyes, and as he travels the landscape, he conveys the same sense of wonder and fear that we go through as well. It makes the battle for the Ring feel important, and not just like a plot device. All of it feels real, and that's the ultimate compliment to any fantasy.
But there's even more to behold. CGI creatures that, at last, feel real and threatening. A villain, dark lord Sauron, who looks like the personification of brute evil. A truly astonishing fight sequence between McKellen's Gandalf and Christopher Lee's Saruman. The ominous Ringwraiths. And much more which is best unspoiled.
DVD owners may want to wait the fall out. November promises an extended, R-rated version of FOTR. While the film already is much too frightening for children, adults might appreciate a few more gory details. The extended version will also hopefully flesh out the more marginal characters in the Fellowship (and the pause button will allow weaker-willed viewers multiple bathroom breaks). Because that would serve to improve what promises to be a film classic for many years to come, perhaps surpassing the original Star Wars trilogy as the ultimate cinematic fantasy.