A Return To Middle-Earth, Part I: Liveblogging the 'Lord Of The Rings' on Blu-ray
Why are we heading back now, and what will we find when we get there?
- Critic's Rating A+
- Readers' Rating A+
So why now?
That's the question that seems most appropriate as we begin the journey. It's 6:00 PST on December 27, and we just hit play on "Fellowship Of The Ring" for the first time since mid-2004.
After all, "The World Has Changed." That first line seems very appropriate now. It's been ten years since this was released, and the landscape of the modern blockbuster seems very different. It's strange to see a new production diary for "The Hobbit" or to see the first trailer and to see how well Jackson appears to be recapturing the exact vibe of his first trip to Middle-Earth. I wasnt sure he'd be able to do it, but more importantly, I wasn't sure audiences would still want to see it. As acclaimed as these three films were, and deservedly so, I still think this is one of the great weird flukes in film history.
Watching the prologue play out again, I'm amazed they were able to start the films this way, kicking off with this crazy infodump, but he makes this history lesson feel positively lyrical. It helps when you have a voice as hypnotic as Cate Blanchett's telling you this tale of how the Ring was created and changed hands. I think it's also smart because it sets up that there is magic and the scale of the world and the darkness that is possible in the series, and it lets you know up front what sort of ride you're in for.
I also love the way this first film only hints at the role Gollum will eventually play in things, offering us one or two quick glimpses of him. Just like when Lucas was making "The Empire Strikes Back," Gollum was the thing that was still in development all the way up to the moment he finally stepped forward in "The Two Towers," and so our first few looks at him in this film are a tease because the filmmakers weren't ready to let you see him yet. He wasn't done. They had such faith that they'd get there, but I doubt even they had any idea how well they'd pull him off in the end.
I wonder... will Jackson ever replace the fleeting shots we get of Ian Holm as young Bilbo about 6:30 into the movie?
As important as the prologue is, for me, it is the introduction of the Hobbits that made me believe Jackson was going to pull it off. He doesn't seem determined to make the Hobbits cool, but instead seems to fully embrace the vision Tolkien had of them, and he cast them for great faces and the immediate suggestion of eccentricity. He didn't build these as movies for 2001. He built these as movies for the ages, movies that stand outside of time and they are better for it.
His affection for the characters is also apparent from the very beginning. The way Frodo and Gandalf first meet in the film is sweet and light, as it should be. The shadows that eventually eclipse everyone in Middle-Earth are still far away at this point, and right away, Howard Shore's score and Andrew Lesnie's photography and the cast and the make-up... it all just feels right. It's immediately immersive. And I love Bilbo's narration in these scenes, the way he describes the world and the people.
And then there's the first moment involving The Ring, when Bilbo can't find it, and here comes that darkness. Just a hint of it. Enough to let you know that it's not going to stay sunny like this forever. Jackson's greatest accomplishment in the entire series is the way he manages tone. I like the way Gandalf drops some hints about "The Hobbit" here, and I can't wait until we have both sets of films to play together, to see how they bounce off of each other.
I love the cutest Hobbit kids in the world and the fireworks, too. Jackson may be shameless, but that's part of the charm of the thing.
It's hard to remember a time now when Ian McKellen was not considered geek royalty. I have heard so many possible names for Gandalf over the years, but none of them could have offered up the breadth of what McKellen does with the role. His parental side, his scary side, his joking side, his wise and mournful side... McKellen makes it all feel real, and that emotional grounding is key to making fantasy like this work.
Oh, I feel bad now... the boys are starting to circle the office like sharks smelling blood in the water. They are aware of "Lord Of The Rings" as a thing that exists, and they know that it's "like 'Star Wars,'" and now they realize that's what playing. They are trying to invent reasons to be in the room, knowing I'm not going to let them watch the films yet, but determined to at least get a glimpse so they can figure out what's going on.
It's been long enough that I don't remember what exactly is or isn't in the theatrical cuts of these films, but I can tell that we've already seen a lot of extra bits and pieces here. I do like the extra breathing room in the extended editions. This exchange where Bilbo tries to tell Frodo how much he means to him is a great bit of character. Necessary? Maybe not. Valuable? Absolutely.
As excited as I am to see what Martin Freeman does playing Bilbo in "The Hobbit," Ian Holm set the bar very high here. He's wonderful as Bilbo. I like how he's sort of thick-lipped and slightly drunk during his goodbye speech, and also the way he suggests the terrible toll that the Ring has taken on him over the years.
Ooooh... that's right. I forget how great that beat is where Bilbo shows his true face and then Gandalf, in response, shows his. It's a disturbing, wonderful moment, and it breaks my heart to see how it almost breaks Bilbo. When he finally drops it, he is immediately a better person for it, and to see how tangible that change is lays great groundwork for the way it's going to eventually try to break Frodo as well.
One of the things that makes these films work so well for me is that there is no reliance on any one type of special effect, no one trick that Jackson leans on. Instead, you can see practically the whole history of visual effects on film represented in this series at one point or another. Silent era trickery and cutting-edge computer work combine in a way that makes it all feel like... well, magic. Which is the point.
One of the challenges ahead for Andrew Stanton this year is that so many movies have borrowed or stolen from the "John Carter" series over the years that finally adapting them to film is going to make him look like the one who's stealing. Jackson had the same problem, but he managed to make these films feel like they owned every bit of their iconography. The Black Riders are great, beautifully realized, and really frightening, and the way they're introduced is a nice reminder of Peter's roots in horror movies.
In fact, this whole stretch of the movie, including Gandalf's desperate detective work, his panicked late-night return to Bag End, and the slow approach of the Black Riders all plays like horror. Thirty-seven minutes in, and the dark clouds are already gathering. To earn this three-movie journey, we have to believe that this simple band of gold really is the manifestation of Evil, something that is worth any sacrifice to destroy.
Just the way Gandalf reacts to the idea of touching it says volumes. It really is amazing what a simple metaphor Tolkien created, and how limber its been in the 70 years or so since he first started publishing stories about Middle-Earth. Seeing this for the first time just a few months after 9/11, it felt urgent. It felt like Jackson had accidentally captured the mood before it happened, the sense that we had to be ready to do anything to stop the aggression of darkness. It is precisely because the Hobbits are so unlikely, so close to silly, that I find them so heroic and affecting.
"This is it... if I take one more step, I'll be the furthest from home I've ever been." I remember the morning Harry and I went to see the Ted Demme film "Blow" at New Line, Harry told me he had a surprise for us for lunch. We met Sean Astin and Elijah Wood at the Newsroom, and it was the first time they'd seen each other after finishing that big giant first round of shooting for the trilogy, when they were still trying to sort through the experience they'd just had, still trying to imagine what the films might actually be. Talking to them at that meal, I understood why Jackson picked both of them for the roles they played in the trilogy, and I still think it's a damn shame Astin wasn't given more awards for these films. His Samwise is one of the great figures of friendship onscreen of all time, and he plays him with the same relentless decency that made "Rudy" such a pleasure.
I can't believe New Line ever convinced people that they wanted to see a film in which there exists a scene like the confrontation between Saruman (Christopher Lee) and McKellen's Gandalf. It is so crazy, so extreme, so heightened and weird, and yet this was as big a blockbuster as was possible in 2001. Jackson didn't compromise on how strange this stuff plays, and yet it still found a huge mainstream audience. That is to be commended on all fronts. Hats off to the filmmakers, the studio, and, yes, the audience as well.
Jackson took chances on so many unfamiliar faces in these films that Hollywood should cut him a royalty check for pretty much everything else made in the decade since, just for how easy he made it on them for casting. I love the chemistry between Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Dom Monaghan, and Billy Boyd, and seeing Monaghan and Wood together at Fantastic Fest this year, it was obvious that the friendships that developed were genuine and deeply-felt. And even in their first few scenes as a group, Jackson rides that line between scary and funny in a very impressive way.
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This is one of the few cases I've ever seen where the longer the films are, the more thematically correct it seems. When you're telling the story of a great journey, you have to make it feel huge, epic, and telling one story over something like ten hours seems like a very good way to make the audience feel like they've taken all those steps right there alongside the characters. Audiences complain sometimes about the running time of films, but I've never seen an audience at the end of "Lawrence Of Arabia" complain that it would have been better if they'd just cut out all that desert stuff. The same is true here. I really love the feeling of getting lost in these Extended Editions, letting them play out with even more detail. Here I am an hour in, and we're just now getting our first look at Aragorn. We've barely even started.
I remember this first glimpse at Sauron, this first look at life in the shadow-world, and just how intense it was. Jackson pushes the limits of the PG-13 as hard as he can, and I love the way it always feels like these films are about to spin into genuine madness every time that Ring is in play.
I was a big fan of Viggo Mortensen's work the moment I saw him in Sean Penn's "The Indian Runner," and while I loved watching him turn up in great oddball character roles like in "Carlito's Way," nothing prepared me for how well he'd embody the laconic cowboy archetype of Aragorn. From his first moment, though, he has a weight and a sober manner that makes him feel like a badass even before we've seen him do any damage.
I remember people complaining that the films were just shots of actors walking across gorgeous landscapes, and while that's certainly one of the signature images of the series, it's not really fair. Jackson keeps things moving at an aggressive clip, even in the Extended Editions. There is very little wasted time here. He was smart enough to slow down for moments of quiet, though, which you have to do or you risk numbing the audience completely to what you're doing. Another reason Viggo works so well is because there's a soulfulness to him that we don't often see in our action heroes.
And when you see a sequence like this, with the Orcs tearing down the trees around Isengard while Saruman watches approvingly, you see how important it is to digress, to try to find ways to illustrate the big ideas at work in what Tolkien wrote. The fear of industrialization was a big part of his writing, and Jackson does a great job of showing how lush and green the world was, and how cold and black it could be.
The Nazgul attack and the second trip into that shadow world is another highlight, and I love the crazy photo-negative versions of the Nazgul, glowing white and mummified. This is really the first "action" scene in the films, and Jackson opts for the surreal and the emotional over the "cool," another choice that makes these feel different than other blockbusters. Try to imagine how Michael Bay would have shot these. I'll bet there wouldn't have been one shot in the entire trilogy that was approached the same way. Jackson is fascinated by this world, and he believes in it in a way that allows him to stage a conversation between a moth and a wizard and make it feel important instead of ridiculous.
The kids have worked their way back into the room, and the questions come fast and furious as they see the Orcs working under Isengard or as they see the Elves show up and Arwen's introduction and Frodo's struggle with the effects of being stabbed. I have to promise them that they will see these films, and that seems to help a bit, but they've got the itch, and I suspect we'll be taking Toshi to see "The Hobbit" in theaters next December as his introduction to Middle-Earth.
Let's be honest... half of why Jackson cast Elijah Wood was for those eyes, right? No special effect on Earth gives you the same mileage you get from an actor with just the right face in just the right part, and in this case, Frodo's eyes are a big part of what I think of when I think of these movies.
An hour and a half in, and the Hobbits think they're done, and by standard movie-length measure, they are. That's a full adventure for many movies. They've wrapped it all up, gotten the Ring to Rivendell, and they're free to leave, right? Nope. This is just the beginning of the Fellowship actually coming together. We're just now seeing Legolas and Boromir and Elrond and Gimli. We're just now getting key pieces of the story. Isildur's betrayal adds a new wrinkle to the story and now we realize just how much bigger this story really is.
It also adds sudden dimension to Aragorn, and it becomes apparent that he's not just a scruffy Han Solo type, here to add some grizzled attitude and general badassery. Viggo is able to play the sensitive dented soul of Aragorn as well as the warrior side, and that's what makes his portrayal so rich and memorable. This whole sequence between Boromir and Aragorn in the Extended Edition is crucial to the overall story, and it really does set up the journey of Aragorn as King in a richer way.
It's also very canny casting for Liv Tyler. I think she's damn close to impossible to use right in a film, and she doesn't have a huge range as an actor, but here, her strange and even severe beauty that is always offset by a general softness to her features seems like a perfect fit for an Elf Princess, and there is a delicacy to the way Aragorn treats her that is quite striking. It makes it easy to invest in their love story over the course of the three films.
Ahhhh... now, at last, the scene that launched a million photo memes, the first assembly of the Fellowship. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is a longer version of the sequence, and that whole "Black Speech of Mordor" thing is not from the theatrical cut. I think Freaky Gandalf is my favorite Gandalf. I love it when things just get weird around him. It's a great way to introduce the dynamics that are going to play out over the next eight hours or so, and it's also impressive because it's such a technical hodge-podge, such a collection of tricks just to show people sitting in a circle and talking. Yet when I look at it, I don't see the seams. I just see this coherent world, where all of these characters really co-exist.
Nice choice for a break between discs. We make it to Frodo's big moment, the single line that defines him and the shape of the rest of the films. "I will take it." And we see Gandalf's reaction, gratitude and sorrow all bound up together, and then on his hesitant, "Though I do not know the way," the Fellowship finally gathers around him, swearing their loyalty, and we can take a quick ten-minute break to refresh and refuel for the second half of the film.
I remember hearing Peter Jackson talk about how important it was to impart the sense that these films were referring to a real history, and as we gear up for the second disc of "Fellowship," that's one of the things that is most clear in the film. The use of the language, the sense of place... it feels real.
Ooops. Forgot Bilbo's scary face when he sees the Ring again. Now I'm wearing my Diet Dr. Pepper. Great. Let me grab another shirt here. Damn you, Jackson!
With a simple touch like asking if Mordor is left or right as they leave Rivendell, Jackson manages to humanize these characters. That's the real trick here, and it's the thing that other fantasy filmmakers, eager to rush in and make the same sort of box-office haul without really knowing why audiences loved these movies, got totally wrong. I love seeing that first shot we ever saw of the Fellowship together, all of them cresting that mountain. It's fun to remember just how excited that one image made us in that first Internet trailer, and then see how simple it is when seen today.
I must admit... part of the reason I was hesitant to revisit these films is because sometimes movies simply live better in our memories. Watching something again a decade later can cause you to reassess the films, and not always in a good way. Effects-driven movies suffer from that more than any other types of films, it seems, unless they are good for reasons other than effects. At this point, I'm already firmly in love with these movies all over again. I am amazed by how much ground we've already covered, and how absorbing every step of the journey is in the film. Jackson, along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, really did do an amazing job of adapting the material and making it cinematic. They do a great job of foreshadowing, but they also make each moment special. They're neither rushing to pack it all in nor drawing things out more than they need. I can't imagine ow much of a challenge this was, even after they were well into production.
Fourteen minutes into disc two, and we're starting into the single greatest extended sequence in any genre film of the 2000s, the Mines Of Moria.
Crazy-ass monsters outside, dead dwarves and possible goblins inside, and Gandalf knows more than he's telling. What a great set-up for a scene. And here's where WETA really threw down for the first time. As visually ravishing as much of the film is before this point, it's Moria where they unleashed the full measure of what they could accomplish, and it is the combination of the phyiscal and the digital that sells it. It's one thing to say "Gandalf's staff lights up and shows them the cave around them" on the page, but the choices of what that cave looks like, how you show that light, and even something as basic as the color palette you're using that really make or break a movie like this, and it is stunning to see how many of those choices Jackson gets right, and how well they pay off in terms of impact.
Gollum's sort of appearance here is interesting to me because of how different he looks, even though we just see his eyes. And while it would be easy just to use it as a bit of plot, a promise of things to come, it actually affords us one of the great human moments of the first film, as Gandalf talks about what the Ring did to poor Smeagol, and Frodo confesses that he wishes the Ring had never found him. It's just McKellen and Wood and that wonderful dialogue, Howard Shore lending subtle support, but it moves me nearly to tears each time.
Each of the major stops along the way illuminates different members of the Fellowship, and here we get a good look at Gimli's culture and the way Middle-Earth has moved on from an earlier age. His shock at seeing what has become of Moria makes it personal. It's not just "Bad things happened here," but rather "What happened to my people?" And just when the sadness seems to be the point, Pippin knocks the dead body down the well, and things get ugly.
Sean Bean is such an important part of this first film. His scene with Frodo and the Ring earlier, his delivery of "They have a cave troll," his eventual ending... I can honestly say this is the first film where I ever really loved his work, start to finish. And, yes, he makes a great credible ass-kicking warrior, too.
Even after seeing the way these scenes were put together, I still think they play like magic. This Cave Troll fight is incredibly well-staged, and it feels organic, like something that was just shot with real people on a real set, instead of something that was stitched together from a million tiny pieces. It works precisely because you aren't thinking about the way they handled all the issues of scale for the different characters or the way the CGI worked or what the set must have looked like. Jackson's camera has a loose, natural energy to it that was unusual in the world of fantasy and science-fiction in 2001, and since then, we've seen many people borrow the idea that a loose, handheld feel sells the "reality" in a different, almost subliminal way.
We should have known, as soon as we saw these waves of Orcs chasing the Fellowship through Moria thanks to the MASSIVE software created by WETA, that the next decade would be all about "giant crowds of digital things." What felt positively otherworldly when we first saw it has become commonplace. Still, Jackson gets it right because of the tension in these scenes. It's not about the effect itself, but rather what that effect does to us.
It think it's also fitting that Spielberg and Jackson eventually ended up working together, because Jackson seems to understand how to construct a set piece in a way that many other directors miss. He knows that it's not just about big sensation, but about the way you accelerate things, about the way you set up ideas, pay them off, play with expectation, confound the audience's desire or confirm it, but always looking to create a build. You can't just hit one note, because where do you go from there? You have to build up to something like the Balrog's reveal, and that way, when you do finally kill Gandalf, it is a huge release, a major movie moment, and not just another empty image.
Best thing about his death? The way Jackson lets you think, for just a second, that everything's okay and the Balrog is gone, and then that whip comes back up out of the darkness and that's it. Gandalf's breathless "Fly, you fools" is one of my favorite line deliveries in the entire trilogy, and then he's gone. Jackson really milks the aftermath, too, letting you see just how much it hurts the Fellowship, and how hopeless everything feels at that point. And then he underlines how there is no time for mourning in a battle, no time to simply collapse and give up. You have to keep moving. You have to push on. There will be time for tears later.
Emerging from the harsh artificial darkness of Moria into the haunting, ethereal beauty of Lothlorien is a wonderful way to keep you off-balance, and it shifts focus from Gimli to Legolas, who has served as nearly-silent background up to this point.
I like that the High Elves are barely made-up, mostly human in appearance, yet give off this strange immortal glow that is beautiful and even overwhelming. Blanchett could not have been more perfectly cast, and her appearance represents another major tonal shift in the film. I love the sense that Middle Earth is at the end of something, and the High Elves embody that, representing something that does not belong in the world of Men. Boromir's pain in this sequence, Gimli's bashful infatuation, Galadriel's midnight talk with Frodo... it's all deeply moving.
Galadriel's mirror is another one of those things that could be very difficult to translate from page to screen, but I think Jackson does it just right. He keeps it simple and doesn't make it a big elaborate effect. He uses it to slip in the Scouring of the Shire, and he uses it to show Frodo just how much pain there is ahead. The sequence is terrifying, and Galadriel's "ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR" moment is breathtaking. She knows what it would cost her to take the Ring and what it would cost everyone else, and her struggle helps Frodo better understand the importance of what he's doing and why it has to be him.
I remember in the build-up to release, there was some talk about how Jackson had made an Orc into a main character and there was some attempt in the marketing to turn Lurtz into a real character. I get the impulse to give the Orcs one recognizable face, but I'm glad Jackson stopped short and didn't push it any further than he did. Lurtz is definitely part of the film, but he doesn't skew the balance at all. It's mainly just a focus as the Orcs get closer to the Fellowship, something to help you get your bearings when you're looking at all the icky monsters.
I can't think of any other blockbusters more concerned with the basic idea of mortality, but it is such an important part of these films, so much a part of the fabric of almost every exchange. Living in the shadow of World War I changed Tolkien, and it changed the world around him, and suddenly people understood that there is nothing permanent in this world. No race, no culture, and certainly no person can expect more than a moment, and accepting that with grace and making that moment count... that's one of the biggest ideas at work in the films.
While I wish I could visit New Zealand, part of me loves that these films are still my main exposure to the natural beauty of that country. Jackson does such a great job of repurposing his homeland into Middle-Earth that I'd have trouble separating the real from the fake at this point. I love that he was able to capture this landscape that no one else had ever really conquered on film in this way and offer us something new, someplace new.
Sean Bean totally crushes it in his final scene with Frodo, as he tries to take the Ring from him. He's pathetic and sad and broken and angry and he makes it work. To see the frailty lurking just under the surface of this powerful warrior is really frightening, and it shows how easily the strong can crumble in the face of temptation or fear. And then Aragorn's actions in the next scene contrast the two of them so well that it earns Aragorn our trust for the rest of the series.
Boromir's betrayal kicks off the final movement of the film, and sets up the shape of "The Two Towers" quite nicely. Thinking in terms of three films and one story at the same time is not easy, and one of the biggest magic tricks of the trilogy is the way they balanced those very contradictory demands from film to film.
Then comes Boromir's death and the self-sacrifice of Pippin and Merry, and we are reminded what actual heroism looks like. It's about doing what must be done no matter the odds or the cost, and doing it without thought of self or glory or reward. For Bean to both fall and be redeemed within fifteen or twenty minutes is impressive, and Jackson makes both parts count. Boromir's death is awful and slow and painful, and Bean goes down like a proud animal, never broken. Jackson can't resist ladling on the gross in that last fight, but what makes it linger is the aftermath of the fight.
Toshi just stepped in to see the tail end of Boromir saying goodbye to Aragorn, and when he saw Legolas, he asked, "Is that a boy or a girl?" Orlando Bloom, this is your legacy.
I forgot how much I loved this moment between Sam and Frodo as Frodo tries to slip away in the boot. "Go back, Sam! I'm going to Mordor alone!"
"Of course you are... and I'm coming with you!"
That pure devotion is so affecting, and Astin plays it with such a childlike intensity, that it got me all over again. Jackson's able to offer some huge emotional payoffs at the end of the first film because we've already spent three hours with these characters. Yes, the story is still just revving up in some ways, but we've definitely finished a major chapter, and it makes sense that the collapse of the Fellowship is where we end this first film.
And even with the sting of defeat still fresh, and even with characters in mortal peril, there is hope at the end of the film, a sense of possibility, and that touch makes a terribly dark ending into something almost uplifting.
It has been a tremendous experience to watch these again for the first time since 2004, and I'm glad some of you participated tonight. We'll be doing the same thing at 6:00 PM on both Wednesday and Thursday with "The Two Towers" and "Return Of The King," using the Extended Editions both times. I hope you'll join me here and participate, and I hope this gets you as excited for next year's release of "The Hobbit" as it's gotten me.
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