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With 10 Miles Behind Me and 10,000 More to Go

By Dustin Rowles | | April 8, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | | April 8, 2009 |

Peter Jackson proved his worth as a gifted director long before The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He first developed a cult following with horror comedies like Meet the Feebles and the brilliant Dead Alive, and then found a modicum of mainstream success with the gloriously dark, beautiful and awe-inspiring Heavenly Creatures, which he later followed up with the surprisingly effective supernatural black-comedy, The Frighteners. And at some point between 1996 and 2001, when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released, Peter Jackson developed one of the best technical minds in film, and became a master of special effects wizardry. Unfortunately, as his mechanical gifts blossomed, his sense of humor and ability to craft relatable and likeable characters withered on the vine. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson perfectly captured the vision of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, shifting the precise landscapes and images from the page to the screen. Unfortunately, the magic and whimsy of Tolkien’s novels never translated. What remains onscreen is a gorgeous, but ultimately empty movie that moves glacially towards an unsatisfactory bookmark, only three hours into an interminable epic that could never end big enough to justify its ultimate 10-hour runtime.

To be fair, it’s not entirely Jackson’s fault; while the imagery of Tolkien’s masterpieces lends itself well to cinema, the storyline never has. And Jackson’s movies suffer from the weaknesses inherent in Tolkien’s books: Magnificent world and meticulously conceived mythology but nothing to do with the characters except move them from station to station, like players in in an elaborate, expensive board game whose only motivation seems to be, “The card told me to move three spaces ahead.” Jackson’s movies only exacerbate that flaw — left without a world to imagine inside your head, the focus turns to the narrative, and that is where The Fellowship of the Ring is most lacking.

George Carlin used to have a routine about what a meaningless sport golf is. He said, “It’s a mindless game. Think of the intellect it must take to draw pleasure from this activity: Hitting a ball with a crooked stick. And then, walking after it … and then! Hitting it again!” It’s the perfect metaphor for how I feel about The Fellowship of the Ring: Frodo walks a few miles, gets in a fight and nearly dies, and then walks a few more miles. The Fellowship of the Rings is not driven so much by a plot, but by a series of obstacles Frodo and the gang must combat before walking some more. It’s like a daytime soap opera — if you watched a week’s worth of episodes and tuned in six months later, you’d still know what was going on. Likewise, if you tune in at the forty-five minute mark or the two-and-a-half minute mark (or even halfway through Return of the King) you’d still know what was going on: They’re walking. Still trying to destroy that ring. Trying to get to Mount Doom. And Frodo is still trying not to succumb to the ring’s power. Nothing in the trilogy ever happens to change that permanent dynamic. And given what you know at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring (either you’ve read the books, or at the very least, you know that there are two more movies in the trilogy), it feels like watching a baseball game you’ve already seen. Sure, the ballpark is beautiful, but with an outcome never honestly in doubt, there’s no real tension to propel the narrative forward. It’s a series of set pieces, an excuse for Jackson to show off his considerable technical skills in lieu of a storyline.

Just in case you are among the very few uninitiated: For a three-hour movie, the plot of Fellowship of the Ring is remarkably simple. Within the first seven-minutes of voiceover dialogue, we learn that the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) came into possession of a ring — the One Ring, which Sauron the Dark Lord once used to subdue and rule over Middle Earth. At his 111th birthday party, Bilbo disappears and leaves the ring to his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood). The Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) tells Frodo to leave immediately with the ring, as the life force of Sauron is still attached to it, so his spirit (and Sauron’s henchman) will soon be coming for it. So, Frodo grabs the ring and gets the hell out of Shire, taking along fellow hobbits Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd).

And then they walk. Man, do they walk. Bad people come after them. They walk some more. Along the way, they pick up Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson), who helps them fight battles with the bad people when they are not walking. And then they walk some more. At one point, Frodo is nearly killed, but he’s taken by the elf Arwen (Liv Tyler) to the Elven haven of Rivendell, where Frodo heals and discovers that he needs to take the Ring to Mount Doom and throw it in, as that’s the only way to destroy it. So, now accompanied by Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys Davies), and Boromir (Sean Bean), they walk some more, stopping occasionally to battle bad guys before walking some more.

Who are these bad creatures? They’re just bad creatures. Why are they bad? They just are. Because they were born hideous looking, and that’s what hideous looking creatures do: They become bad. That’s one of the things that bothers me most about The Lord of the Rings. It’s based on mythic archetypes: The good are good, and the bad people are bad, just because they are. There’s no explanation as to why this is; it just is. We don’t have any real understanding of what drives anyone to do what they do. It’s a problem that plagues all three films; we understand Frodo must destroy the ring, but we never really understand what compels him to do so. Likewise, in Fellowship of the Rings, we never get a clear understanding of Sauron; he’s just a bad motherfucker who wants to regain power.

Star Wars works with the same archetypes, but adds a veneer of complexity. The characters in Star Wars (at least IV - V) have personalities. Though limited, they have motivations. And occasional senses of humor. And crushes. There are no wisecracks in Fellowship of the Ring. There is no romance. It’s just a series of self-serious characters whispering ominous things to one another about the evils of that ring and then walking. There’s no subtlety — everything is spelled out, repeatedly (in case you didn’t understand the evils of the ring the first 47 times Gandalf explained it). There’s nothing relatable about the characters. And there’s nothing in the storyline that resonates with our modern world. Worse still, Jackson is arrogant and presumptuous enough to believe that his vision is so amazing that he’s doing us a favor by giving us a three hour movie, when he could’ve bored us just as effectively in two hours.

Some have argued that Peter Jackson is like Steven Spielberg without the cloying sentimentality. And that, in my opinion, is what’s wrong with Peter Jackson post since the first Lord of the Rings movie (and this, too, includes King Kong). Spielberg’s Peter Pan syndrome can get heavy-handed at times, but it’s that sentimentality that humanizes his characters, that gives them something the viewer can latch onto (Del Toro, in my opinion, is the perfect combination of the two). Putting aside the fact that there’s barely any forward momentum in Fellowship of the Ring (after three hours, they still have the goddamn ring), there’s nothing in those characters that resonates with me. Sure, Aragorn is bad ass, Boromir is heroic, and Frodo is kind of a whiny damsel, but the rest are mere set pieces, characters that Jackson manipulates with the same dispassionate approach he takes to the special effects. And for all the fireworks in The Fellowship of the Ring, there’s very little magic.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You may begin throwing things at him … now.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.