Monday, December 22, 2003

Behold the King Elessar!

I saw Return of the King yesterday, and like just about everyone else in the world, some things about it I adored, some things I liked less so well, and overall I found it a stunning and occasionally emotionally overwhelming experience. I think, though, that I found The Two Towers to be the best of the trilogy, based on the theatrical cuts. (My thoughts on The Two Towers can be found here.)

And, like everyone else, it seems that the best course may be just list some random observations. SPOILERS HERE!

:: First, a complaint about movie audiences: when you know damned well that the film you're seeing is the blockbuster of the season, and you further know that by virtue of seeing it opening weekend it's likely to sell out the theater, please oh please! Move all the way to the end of the row when you're filing into the theater, and abandon this foolish idea that you're going to have an empty seat on either side of your party. The result is that people who get there fairly close to showtime end up either sitting in the less-desirable seats way in front, or splitting up entirely. (And it would be nice if the theater manager actually standing in the door providing assistance to people looking for seats would actually encourage this practice. Anybody who's ever attended an event in a theater at Disney World knows that those people don't even admit the possibility of an empty seat, and they treat the crowd accordingly.)

OK, about the movie itself. Remember: spoilers.

:: I know that Peter Jackson needed to set up Sam not being with Frodo for the initial encounter with Shelob, but the whole business with Smeagol planting seeds of doubt about Sam in Frodo's mind didn't really work for me. Maybe Frodo would try to send Sam away, but Sam wouldn't have gone, or even started to go. And he could have accomplished the same thing by having Smeagol arrange, say, a rockslide on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol to perhaps get Sam out of the way. (Of course, the Tolkien-literalists probably would have really howled at this.)

:: The Shelob encounter was a fine sequence. What I liked was that Peter Jackson avoided the temptation to start the encounter with one of those Alien-like "beastie jumping out with a bang" to scare the audience. What I didn't like was Sam's line "Get away from him, you filth!" which put me in mind of, well, Aliens when Ripley dons the Wearable Forklift.

:: I liked the effect of Frodo's eyes becoming bluer and bluer, and more lamplike, like Gollum's eyes, as the film progressed and the Ring made its final grab for Frodo's soul.

:: Wasn't the Golden Hall full of sleeping men when Pippin swiped the Palantir? Why, then, did nobody awaken except for Merry, Gandalf, Legolas and Aragorn?

:: Yes, I missed Saruman. "He's not a threat anymore. Leave him locked in the tower" just doesn't cut it, I'm afraid.

:: I don't know if I've ever seen a more thrilling scene in a film than the lighting of the signal fires. (But that didn't stop me from wondering, just how bad do you have to screw up in the service of Gondor to get assigned that duty? "OK, you are to go live on top of this mountain and on the off chance you ever see the fire atop the next mountain over…."

:: OK. I've said before that I think Liv Tyler's performance as Arwen is just fine. Too bad the part of Arwen is pretty badly written. She's reduced to lying upon a couch, waiting to be saved. I'm not sure how much of this is Tolkien's fault originally, but Tolkien knew that the romances were not central to his story and relegated them to the Appendices; I'm not sure now that Peter Jackson ever totally figured out how to deal with the structural problems inherent in the Aragorn-Arwen union.

:: And then there's Eowyn, a strong and compassionate and three-dimensional female character. Too bad she disappears completely after killing the Witch King, and too bad her union with Faramir isn't shown. I hope this is rectified in the DVD version.

:: The Battle of the Pellenor Fields was pretty remarkable. I found it interesting that, unlike the Battle of Helm's Deep, it didn't have a definite starting point – it just kind of ramped up, with one level of desperation following upon another. I was a bit confused as to why this Orc army would bother carving such an elaborate battering ram, though. Much has been said about all the other elements of the battle, so I'll leave well enough alone. (Except that Eowyn's take-down of the Witch King was a fine, fine moment. A fine moment among many.) And did I miss it, or was there really no shot of that one Orc Captain – you know the one, Mr. Tumor Face – getting killed horribly?

:: And would it have been so hard to give Gimli a chance to strut his stuff in impressive fashion? We've had three films of Legolas being a lethal machine, Merry and Pippin finding their courage, but Gimli never seemed to get his own moment to really shine. I would have liked to see him face down a company of thirty charging Orcs, an axe in each hand….

:: Here's something I've never understood, and maybe a Tolkien scholar among my readership might illuminate me a bit: Why is Gimli the only dwarf to fight in the War of the Ring? Why did none of the Dwarves ever come down from the Lonely Mountain? I'm pretty sure that the disaster in Moria did not destroy all of the Dwarves.

:: There should have been a scene where Aragorn takes the leadership of Minas Tirith and Gondor before leading the armies to the Black Gate.

:: The film is, of course, visually amazing. But there were a couple of visuals that I didn't like on the compositional basis. Among these is when Aragorn's army is surrounded outside the Black Gate. (Oh, yeah, I missed the Mouth of Sauron. This would have added, at most, two minutes to the running time.) The wide shot had a "concentric circle" appearance that looked fake to me, as did the way the ground fell away when Mordor collapsed – the fissures stopped in the exact zig-zag pattern needed to spare all of Aragorn's army. That didn't work for me.

:: The corsair ships didn't glide in the water like real ships to my eyes – no rocking back and forth, no rise and fall of the prows as they cut the waves. No, not a big deal. It just happened to catch my eye.

:: Likewise, I can buy the ring not melting instantly upon plopping onto the lava, but Gollum should have disintegrated in flames before meeting the molten rock.

:: I didn't much miss the Scouring of the Shire, and further, I don't think today's film audiences would have sat through it willingly. There was enough squirming during the wrap-ups as it was. But if Jackson had to ditch the Scouring, I might have rather preferred if Frodo had simply never attempted to live there again. The film made it feel slightly perfunctory for me, and about the only solution I could see would have been for Frodo to never have gone back to the Shire at all. (In the film, assuming no Scouring. The book works fine, obviously.)

:: Generally speaking, I don't think the films really capture either the sense of journey or the passage of time that is evident in the books. There are too few glimpses of the map of Middle Earth in all of the films, and while there is the occasional line of dialogue that conveys time ("It's been four years since Weathertop", "We must hold this road out of Rivendell for forty days", "The Uruks are still a day ahead of us!"), that passage of time still isn't really felt. Nowhere is this more true than when Frodo and Sam finally get into Mordor: the film makes it seem like Mount Doom is all of five or six miles from the Pass of Cirith Ungol. This crops up, though, in all manner of other places. Aragorn's journey on the Paths of the Dead is a long trek, but the film doesn't really suggest as much.

:: As long as Peter Jackson was willing to include stuff from the Appendices, I wish he'd found a way to get in the bit where an old Samwise Gamgee, after Rosie has passed on, goes to the Grey Havens and over the sea as the last of the Ringbearers.

:: Any film music fan willing to utter anything along the lines of "Oh, if only Williams/Horner/Goldsmith had been signed to score these films" should be given an immediate series of ritual dope-slaps. Howard Shore has scored these films magnificently, none moreso than this third installment.

So, that's it. I'll probably have more to say once my thoughts have formed and my feelings have settled in a little. This trilogy is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen, and I wonder if this might not point to a new direction for Hollywood, now that it's demonstrated that audiences will accept stories told in multiple films that are designed as such. I don't think the films are perfect, and I'm not sure if they'll displace Star Wars in my heart. But I'm sad that it's over.

(But hey, it's not a total loss: I still have May of 2005 to look forward to!)

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