A rare ascension into the upper echelons of the forceful, intoxicating magic of pop cinema, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is just as enormous, effective, generous, thrilling, and, yes, exhausting as an adaptation of its magnitude can and should be. Raising the bar on artistic ambitions, special effects, and complex storytelling for big-studio productions, The Lord of the Rings did not take long to become the flagship of a sinking company, as even its astounding business couldn’t save its long-running, beloved distributor New Line Cinema from folding and getting absorbed by Warner Bros. Diehards of the epic tomes by J.R.R. Tolkien still cry havoc today, raising contentious debates over cutting that part of the book where the origin of Old Toby pipe weed is explained—or some such nonsense. Intellectuals and devotees of the arthouse wondered what, if any, substance was to be found in the films. As essentially pointless as this reviewer may find such discussions, opinions are opinions, and any work worth a damn will have its dissenters, many of whom are looking for attention, but some of which have legitimate concerns. Nevertheless, The Lord of the Rings is certainly deserving of one distinct descriptor, one that has been overused and diluted to the point that its original meaning seems somewhat polluted: The Lord of the Rings is awesome.
Even now, the idea that such a grandiose work of filmmaking came from Peter Jackson seems incredible. The decision to pick an indie director, whose most noteworthy films involved such diverse sights as violent, sex-crazed muppets, teenage girls dancing with living statues, and a zombie massacre at the hands of a momma’s boy with a lawnmower, to take the reins of such an immense production was tantamount to signing David Lean to helm an adaptation of Krapp’s Last Tapes. Jackson’s only prior work with a big studio, The Frighteners, was an outright flop that made back a little over half its budget from U.S. theaters and received mixed reviews. And yet somehow The Lord of the Rings brought Jackson’s formidable faculties to bear in resoundingly fresh ways—and suddenly, a born Hollywood filmmaker arose and, perhaps even more than that, a thoroughly modern pop artist was revealed.
The films called for size, considerable imagination, and detailed, interlocking scripts, which Jackson co-wrote with Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and producer and off-screen Ms. Jackson, Fran Walsh, but there were many things inherent in Tolkien’s vast narratives that spoke to the director of Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles. Chief among them would be Gollom (Andy Serkis), the mutated, emaciated creature who possesses the eponymous apocalypse-summoning piece of jewelry before it’s picked up by a hobbit named Bilbo Baggans (Ian Holm). Bilbo’s story, told largely in Jackson’s upcoming two-film adaptation of The Hobbit, is only whispered about and alluded to as the elderly adventurer returns to his home in the Shire, where his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) and old friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, a commanding presence) wait to celebrate the completion of Bilbo’s novel. Frodo is content with mugs of beer, long drags of longbottom leaf, and fireworks, but Gandalf senses something dark and troubling in Bilbo and later, locates the ring and reveals its near-bibilical prophecy.
Roused by the very real prospect of the end of days, brought forth by Sauron and his innumerable legions, Frodo becomes the carrier of the ring, flanked by a fellowship of the most celebrated warriors from each of the most prominent species in Middle-earth. Gandalf and Frodo’s friend and gardener, Samwise (Sean Astin), are the young hobbit’s closest allies, but his protection is the sole concern of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Boromir (Sean Bean), Legalos (Orlando Bloom), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and his two mischievous buddies, Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan). The smart money says that if you were born before 1995, you more or less know how the story unfurls from there, spiraling off into a seemingly endless variety of narrative threads leading toward Frodo’s march into Mordor. One might bring up the storming of Helm’s Deep, the battle of Gondor, the tribe of Ents, the defeat of Saromon (Christopher Lee), the exorcism of Theoden (a very good Bernard Hill), the ghost army of Dunhorrow, the madness of Denethor (John Noble) and that admittedly hard-to-ignore hobbit romp on Frodo’s sickbed toward the end of the third film, but these are merely touchstones. Jackson’s ultimate triumph is as much about the film’s atmosphere, dramatic heft, philosophical asides, and familial tensions as it is about its litany of face-offs against orcs, trolls, goblins, witch kings, giant spiders, ring wraiths, fire demons, fell beasts, and men corrupted by the promise of great power.
Indeed, for whatever complaints may understandably arise in the face of its cumbersome runtime, the success of The Lord of the Rings is tied directly to its pacing and its ability to clearly orchestrate all of its storylines from beginning to end. Nothing feels rushed, and when it’s revealed toward the end that 13 months have passed since Frodo took on the great burden, the viewer can feel the weight of time and the abundance of existence that has been captured and covered by Jackson and his astonishing cast and crew. For a film that includes not one but two rescue sequences involving giant eagles, what makes The Lord of the Rings such a huge accomplishment is the sincerity and heart it exudes despite ostensibly being labeled high spectacle. This isn’t to say that the films shouldn’t be noted for their sense of spectacle: The battle scenes are choreographed with a full, clear sense of camera movement and motion within the frame, and are structured with an even, precise tempo. But these extended sequences are not treated as respite from narrative agenda, and when all the smoke clears, the bevy of philosophical musings, tirades about honor, hope, and bravery, and the torrents of emotional catharsis feel as galvanic as any orc slaughter, big or small.
Throughout the trilogy, the aesthetic remains perfectly poised on the brink of utter darkness, the light often obscured by dense forestry, oceans of gray, ashy clouds, and mountains that touch the rim of the sky. And while cinematographer Andrew Lesnie uses exterior light to shape and mirror the quest against Sauron, production designer Grant Major gives superb, evocative detail to the interiors, favoring darker colors in the besieged kingdoms and brighter tones in the Shire. Jackson accentuates the promise of home and community over romance and love, which only becomes palpable in the tenuous relationship between Aragorn, his elven wife (Liv Tyler), and Eowyn (a fantastic Miranda Otto), Theoden’s daughter. Cate Blanchett’s elf queen notwithstanding, The Lord of the Rings offers only these two major female roles among all the fraternity and machismo, which would be suspicious if those bonds of honor, fraternity, loyalty, and bravery were not made so thoroughly compelling through the scripts and the consistently strong cast, led by the rousingly regal Mortensen.
Jackson’s regular editor, Jamie Selkirk, deserves due praise for his work as well, helping Jackson engineer his narrative and run it with expert efficiency. The more impressive feat of editing, however, is Jackson’s streamlining of the narratives, knowing which backstories to include and how much, which landscapes and kingdoms need their history explained, which characters’ lineages must be charted to understand the full breadth of the psychological, spiritual, and physical struggles that are being waged. The filmmaker’s subsequent project, his visually arresting, dramatically languid retelling of King Kong, could be seen as the first step back toward his earlier, darker thematic proclivities, but the filmmaking was still steadily in the realm of the spectacle. Size can ensnare an artist almost as easily as money, and The Lord of the Rings was such a towering and lucrative work of Hollywood rigor that Jackson basically can write his own ticket from now on. Nevertheless, there’s a sense that Jackson will never return to the glorious depravity of his early days, despite having all due freedom to do so. It seemed spelled out as soon as the credits rolled on his bizarrely erratic and unconvincing adaptation of The Lovely Bones, a film which called on similar themes as both The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures: You can’t go home again.
New Line Home Video has pulled out all the stops with this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, but the company has faced some not-completely-absurd flack for the crush evident in the image and the oversaturated color scheme in the extended editions of the film. To be perfectly frank, the changes are negligible, but not exactly what I would call damaging to the picture. Greens are far more pronounced and robust than any other color on the transfer, but this isn’t to say that the reds, blues, blacks, and browns aren’t remarkably handled. Though I agree that it can be a nuisance, I cannot find too much fault, especially considering the level of detail and clarity given to Jackson’s film in this transfer, a huge improvement over the DVD releases of these films. As for the sound, it’s quite simply perfect. The mix is dense, filled with Howard Shore’s magnificent score, vast waves of atmospheric noise, and multiple levels of dialogue, especially in the battle sequences. And yet, an incredible balance has been achieved between these sources, and though the big action scenes are the real show-off material, roaring to life with immense auditory power, there’s also brilliance in the subtlety of the quiet scenes, such as the scenes between Aragorn and his betrothed. Dialogue is out front, but behind it there’s a lovingly maintained menagerie of carefully captured sound.
To call the extras on this box set insurmountable is being kind. Anything you ever wanted to know about these three films, from the first whispers of the screenwriting phase to the last moments of post-production, is readily available here. Each disc comes with four separate commentaries featuring a myriad of cast and crew members, and as I listened to them, I was most struck by the passion still felt by all of these people for these films. Of the featurettes, which number above 40, I was most fascinated by the ones that focused on the use of visual effects, makeup, cinematography, and editing, though nothing here is half-assed or even slightly uninteresting. On top of this, there are three feature-length documentaries detailing the behind-the-scenes happenings of each film. Each one is directed by Jackson protégé Costa Botes and each one is ravishingly entertaining and insightful, filled with anecdotes, asides, and fascinating moments of on-set decision-making. All tolled, this is an invaluable, enlightening package. Also included: boatloads of stills, storyboards, and slideshows.
An insurmountable amount of extras comes second only to New Line Home Video’s stunning visual and audio transfer of Peter Jackson’s exhilarating and exhausting epic.