Critic's Notebook: After a decade, Jackson trilogy holds up
It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since a humble B-movie director named Peter Jackson came along and reinvented the fantasy film genre. Before tackling Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jackson was best known as the guy who had made “Dead Alive,” “Heavenly Creatures” and a couple of foul-mouthed puppet pics — a background that shows in the approach he took to “The Lord of the Rings.”
Revisiting “LOTR” a decade later — thanks to the three-week series of theatrical screenings tied to the extended-cut Blu-ray release — I was struck by how remarkably well the three films hold up. If anything, they’ve gotten better with age, which I never would have guessed at the time they bowed.
I can recall recoiling somewhat upon my first encounter with “The Fellowship of the Ring” back in 2001, jarred by the almost schlocky combination of elements that marked Jackson’s aesthetic: Here was an epic story presented as a 2½-hour succession of comicbook-style compositions, featuring quick cuts between odd angles — the very antithesis of classical “Lawrence of Arabia”-style storytelling. And then there was that peculiar, deliberately artificial blue-green tint to the entire film, now standard in everything from extreme horror (“Saw”) to mainstream comedies (“Due Date”), as well as what looked to be the heaviest reliance on computer-generated effects to date.
Remember, this was the era in which people saw Pixar movies in order to marvel at the latest CG innovations. (Fur! water! human skin!: These were all selling points at the box office, but also high-artifice distractions that pulled audiences out of the movie at hand.) I was slow to embrace CG, feeling that it failed to deliver the more tangible onscreen presence of animatronics and puppets.
In retrospect, I realize that audiences must be properly conditioned before they are willing to accept new special-effects standards as “realistic.” Ten years on, the trilogy’s many digital elements, which range from Andy Serkis’ stunning motion-capture performance as Gollum to elaborate CG set extensions and swarms of fantasy creatures, no longer call attention to themselves.
The same could be said for Jackson’s peculiar narrative style, which alternates between the intimate (much of the interpersonal drama plays out in tight closeups) and the extreme (an omniscient eye even more all-seeing than Sauron’s is capable of swooping from the upper turrets of an evil wizard’s tower down into the fiery pits where his minions are busy forging a monstrous army). The extended editions may run nearly four hours apiece, and yet they are surprisingly “cutty,” with the director constantly changing angles on the action — an approach that creates considerably more work for him in both shooting and editing. Again, time has helped ease the effect on audiences, with a decade’s worth of Tony Scott and Michael Bay movies making Jackson’s style downright classical by comparison.
Strategically speaking, Jackson was wise to fill “Fellowship” with so many helicopter shots of speck-sized heroes running across wide open landscapes. Such visuals went a long way to establish the epic scope of the trilogy, and yet this striking Jackson signature quickly became cliche. The device still surfaces in fantasy pics that aspire to seem bigger, including this year’s “Your Highness” and the first half of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”
We critics are often heavily influenced by both our expectations and the perverse notion that we can intuit a director’s creative intent. As such, it’s easy to nitpick all the little things that a film isn’t, instead of celebrating what it is. “The Lord of the Rings” is a perfect example: So accomplished is Jackson’s vision, so robust and detailed is the Middle Earth that he creates, we take for granted the fact he’s spun this world from scratch.
Coming back to the series a decade later, however, it’s impossible to ignore the scale of this achievement. From Frodo’s grimy fingernails to the volcanic expanse of Mordor, Jackson gives a specific and incredibly tangible sense of the space in which Tolkien’s tale unfolds — one that feels intimately familiar as we retrace the Fellowship’s steps across three films.
The first installment remains the weakest, serving primarily to sculpt the world and lay the stakes of the hobbits’ quest. The narrative has a tendency to drag its way through exposition and character introductions, to the extent that I often think of “Fellowship” as a procession of funerals. (Not since “The Iliad” has a work seemed so preoccupied with paying respect to its dead, even when the characters are in fact alive.)
It is not until the next — and most thrilling — film that Legolas emerges as a proper character, for example. Most screenwriters would agree that second acts are the hardest to write, and yet “The Two Towers” manages to sustain equal levels of excitement even as it divides the characters into separate parties, each faced with a series of cliffhangers. Even more impressive is the sustained, full-scale siege at Helm’s Deep — as stunning a depiction of battle as Sergei Bondarchuk’s 10,000-extra “War and Peace.”
Of course, series capper “The Return of the King” would be the installment to win 11 Oscars, including picture and director, paying off the relationships and rivalries established in the earlier films. Still, it feels improper to judge any of the segments on its own, seeing as how all three chapters belong to a single, sustained narrative that Jackson had scripted and shot in its entirety before “Fellowship” ever reached theaters.
Rather than feeling quaint and dated 10 years later, the cumulative undertaking — more than 12 hours of not-so-casual viewing in all — still dwarfs everything that has come in its wake.