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Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
Film review

Neil Smith April 2002

Peter Jackson could well have just saved Hollywood.

Not that they wouldn't have made any more films but with his film adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring, the first of the Lord of The Rings trilogy, he has re-awakened the dreams of the 'blockbuster' audience. Lost in the wilderness of hyperbolic dross roughly defined as 'entertainment' such as 'Batman and Robin', 'Godzilla', 'Cut-throat Island'. 'The Phantom Menace' et al, Blockbuster audiences had begun to lose their belief. And for a system built on believing, this was enough to start getting the 'suits' worried.

Blockbusters are that rare breed: they cost a lot to make, demand mass global publicity and need to be very successful to recoup their total cost. For a genre that can sink an entire studio with just one film, risk-taking is rarely an option. Sequels and formula have therefore become the rule rather than the exception.

Who was to know, then, that all our faded dreams and the blockbuster reputation would be salvaged by a man who breaks every rule in the Hollywood book: he's short, fat, distinctly unfashionable; and finally, and perhaps worst of all, he's unknown. Yet in Peter Jackson's lap was placed the biggest film project EVER. A $300 million budget to make three films…in one go! A production that has proved to be one of the most complex ever undertaken being filmed completely out of sequence. On top of all that he rejected Hollywood's finest and used his own unknown production company and unheard-of special effects department. The question really should be how on earth this project ever got green-lighted, let alone how it got made and turned into the triumph it undoubtedly is?

Time will probably unravel such questions. But what we do have is the opening film itself.

And what a film it is!

Watching it feels like an audience is watching a master craftsman at work. Peter Jackson is so at ease with form, so utterly compelled by the story he's telling and so fearless the audience can only submit and follow eager and breathless with each new gob-smacking world he presents. The prologue alone packs so much visual grandeur and storytelling technique that most blockbusters of the last 20 years should hang their overblown heads in shame.

And this is just the prologue! From then on each new face and each new land of Middle Earth grabs and fills with wonder and awe. F.o.t.R. presents images and spectacle rarely attempted in the last twenty years. Time will tell but for now this film looks like setting the standard for blockbusters to come.

There is so much to admire about this film: its maturity of form yet underlying innocence; the great splendour of the visual palette swathed with CGI that sets the heart racing at every turn. But unlike many effects-laden epics this is no CGI driven computer game. Yes the effects are there and awesome indeed but so is the bold beauty of nature's glory in New Zealand's magisterial landscapes. Nature complimenting CGI instead of competing with it - now this is something new! In fact the seamless relationship between the too becomes so dazzling that one can only pity the poor New-Zealanders for the inevitable invasion of tourists wanting to see for themselves what they've been missing out on.

Equally impressive are the actors. Ian Macellen might as well erase his CV of films before F.o.t.R. His face and that of Gandalf's are now truly chiselled in cinema's consciousness. His look, those playful, childish eyes and grizzled old-world wisdom all fit perfectly. Christopher Lee as Saruman, his nemesis, is mighty as the fallen wizard tempted by the overwhelming power, and when he and Gandalf clash head-on the audience is left with their jaw firmly amongst the pop-corn. Elija Wood has the perfect harmony between the Hobbit like innocence of a child and the daring of a hero in the making. Cameos such as Ian Holme as Bilbo Baggins and Kate Blanchet as Galadriel have all been chosen wisely to compliment the worlds they inhabit. On the down side it is, ironically, the fellowship itself, presents the weakest characters. The Elf, Legolas played by Orlando Bloom and John Rhy Davies’ dwarf warrior Gimili in particular have character traits that can be counted on one hand. The problem is that we never get to watch them live their everyday existence in the same way we do with Frodo and Gandalf in the peaceful, idyllic Shire. This mars some of the emotional scenes, particularly towards the end as we have had little time to feel for them beyond their role as part of the fellowship. Having said that each is effective enough to make us care for the adventure they are undertaking.

The main problem with the film is also its strength. Peter Jackson has woven his film with a classic structure that is essentially focused on one, three-hour epic journey. At once this is simple and effective for driving the story along but at the same time the audience is given little opportunity to relish each new and wondrous world. Each is so detailed and lovingly crafted it feels a bit frustrating to not be given more of a chance to breathe its air more deeply and soak in all the sights and sounds Peter has offered. Having said that these 'brave new worlds' aren't just places of beauty, they DO serve a purpose as a means to develop character and plot. With so much to see it feels like the film could easily have been split into two allowing more space and time.

This criticism is mainly from the first viewing. My advice: buy another ticket and re-live it all again. It is with the second viewing that the story and themes start to shine through and all its visual richness starts to settle. Beware though with all this talk of beauty. F.o.t.R is also a viscous and frightening experience. This is no children's sugar bowl. Peter Jackson knows how thrilling the story is and how tense the situations are. And the film IS extremely tense. At points almost unbearably so. Dread and fear are expertly handled mixing unnatural sounds with a demonic atmosphere to shake the most hardened hearts. This is confident filmmaking that has managed to cut through the fearful expectations of book lovers and Hollywood business suits and lays bare a filmmaker's love for a beloved story. Take it or leave it this is Peter's film, his way.

Luckily we take it. We take it, hug it and sit tightly hanging on and following every sweeping camera movement and heart-poundingly exciting adventure expectant at what potentials lie ahead.

And 'potential' is the key. F.o.t.R is, after all, the beginning, the opening chapter. As such it has to introduce characters, plot and a sensuality that will drag the audience in, hold them for three hours and have them panting for more. Peter Jackson has done this with assured aplomb and virtuosity.

Hollywood? Are you listening? Peter Jackson: an ungainly, un-Hollywood unknown has begun your 1st lesson for making a blockbuster: Take a great story, a director who loves film and its potential, believes in himself, employs great actors and holds a vision beyond the confines of expectations. Nurture with strength, boldness and courage.

Here ended the lesson. The next two are hopefully to come.

Let's hope Hollywood is taking notes.

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