The worst of what is ultimately the best trilogy of all time

Spoilers herein.

One hallmark of science fiction and fantasy is the creation of a world that includes to some extent the creator. That way, instead of inhabitants bumping around in a world, we get a complex set of interactions: some as a result of the world affecting the players, and some the other way around. Tolkien’s work fits well within this tradition, in fact why it was so successful I think is the thoroughness with which he developed the magical laws. The reader not only understood that the magic had power, but had some notion of how it worked. That allowed the reader to exist both at the level of Frodo and the magical level of the wizards and demigods.

That’s the soul of the books; not any episode, not any `theme’ about brotherhood or hope or any such sodapop.

The first film of this saga impressed purely with the sheer ambition of the project, and we now have the second one. It is fun watching, just like `Speed’ was in its day, but I’m unhappy with some of the choices that were made.

With film, there are specific ways to span the two worlds, ways which a few filmmakers have been exploiting for a long time — long enough for some of them to appear in mainstream films. Almost none of those techniques were used here. Nearly all the choices were ones that plant us firmly in the world of the inhabitants who are buffeted by the world’s forces just like we as people are. This literally boils all the magic out of the books, and we are left with `Braveheart’ meets `The Black Cauldron’ except slightly more expensively done and with some monsters.

The travesty is not that these choices were made to protect the investment in the films, but that so many Tolkien enthusiasts miss the point and argue about whether elves appear in the wrong scenes.

Further to the philosophy of the film: the manner in which the characters deal with the camera is roughly equivalent to the relationship the readers’ imaginative `eye’ has with the text. In addition to being cast at the level of the adventures and not the magic, there are other problems. That stance is inconsistent — the greatest offense comes in the middle of the great battle. Until then, the players have been dead serious. They’ve been in their lives, not characters in a movie that wink at us. But all of a sudden, we have a barrage of winking: the `surfing’ move, the dwarf-tossing joke, the 007-like standoff on the bridge. All of these depend on us knowing it is a movie and the characters leaving their lives and knowingly entering the movie.

Other problems with that stance. The various technologies used each have their own way the camera must be used. The two perspectives that impressed me were the handling of the fight between Gandolf and the balrog and the relationship we have with Gollum. In the first, our eye IS magical as it swoops around sometimes watching the fight, sometimes IN the fight. This use of the camera is new — I noticed it also last week in `Treasure Planet’ when encountering the black hole. But it entirely different than the soliloquies Gollum (and several others) have. Under the guise of talking to themselves, they are really talking to us, nearly looking at the camera. All of the camera engagement is from Bergman, and is his well-studied solution to the Shakespearean stage technique.

I liked both of these, but they are inconsistent with each other, inconsistent with Tolkien’s magic as noted and inconsistent with the movieland jokes. But there are even more diverse perspectives. We have the helicopter shots (again from `Braveheart’), and a few similar shots of virtual sets. We could have had some new movement (like the balrog fight), but we are supposed to recall similar shots.

And then there are the Ents, animation straight out of `Poltergeist.’ It is another set of views determined by the technology rather the story. Shifting among the bluescreen of hobbits in Ents, to the humanistic CGI Gollum, to the video game animation of the battle was jarring. We never were in Tolkien’s world, just browsing through the aisles of your video store, shifting about.

LOTR was written with specific notions of reading in mind and is bound to them. But `Dune’ was not. Imagine a film of Dune with this budget and Lynch’s originality instead of Jackson’s `me-too-isms.’ Now that would be cool.

Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 4: Worth watching.