Director: Peter Jackson
I haven’t read J.R.R. Tolkien‘s classic fantasy saga. I tried actually, but after ten pages of painstakingly detailed description of Hobbits doing Hobbit stuff, I just quit. Having now seen the first of three movies adapting “The Lord of the Rings”, I kick myself for not having stuck with it. Then again, I might not have been as amazed by what unfolded on that giant screen. As directed by Peter Jackson, “The Fellowship of the Ring” is the kind of experience you wish for every time you go to the movies. Right from the opening prologue, which brings virgins like myself up to date on the basic elements of the story, the film is fascinating. Sitting among a sold out screening, I gradually zoned out from my surroundings and emerged in Middle-Earth, witnessing the creation of Dark Lord Sauron’s rings, which he divides among elves, dwarves and men, maybe to make up for being, well, a Dark Lord. But surprise surprise, turns out this is only another devious trick from Sauron, who’s also crafted another ring out of all his might and evil, “one ring to rule them all”. He’s soon embarked on a war to take over Middle-Earth but against all hope, one man throws his all into battle and manages to destroy Sauron. Or so it seems.
Flash forward to centuries later, as the little dudes of Hobbiton are preparing to celebrate the 111th birthday of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Among the guests is his old friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), a powerful but rather down-to-earth wizard who likes to smoke a little weed and to mess around with fireworks. These early scenes are a treat, some quiet and fun before the sinister events depicted in the introduction cast their shadows into the present. I liked the way Bilbo and Gandalf quickly felt like real persons and how they related to each other, and what felt tedious on paper now seems natural and stimulating. Through a handful of little moments, we get an understanding of who Hobbits are and how they live, and we accept them as an existing species in this world. This is one of the most startling things in the film, how it often doesn’t feel like fantasy as much as a historical drama, so richly detailed everything is.
The festivities end abruptly when Bilbo slips on a mysterious ring and disappears, to his guests’ shock. Gandalf finds this strange, so he forces his buddy, who is about to leave town, to leave his ring in the care of his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) while he does some research. And thus Gandalf realises that he’s been in the presence of the supposedly mythical yet ever feared ring of Sauron, and his unholy armies have already sensed its reawakening. And so they get riding to its pursuit, set to get it back to their master. Gandalf hurries back to poor Frodo, and together with a Fellowship overcoming racial barriers, they embark on a quest to destroy this ring which no one could behold without being corrupted by its infinite power. But, having been made in the fire of Mount Doom, “only there can it be unmade”, hence the Fellowship will have to venture through forests, rivers, mountains, fields, caves, snow and more, all while fighting back attack after attack from various deadly foes.
As stated, I’m not familiar with the source material, so the film kept surprising me. I heard about how imaginative it was, but I didn’t know it was so ruthless. This isn’t a fairy tale: characters can and will die, failure always seems imminent, and a nameless dread inhabits every other frame. It’s a wonder the Fellowship manages to survive and that they keep going. I aren’t sure whether they’re admirable heroes or desperate fools who can’t accept that they’re bound for a horrible fate. Maybe it’s a little of both, with Frodo, specially. He doesn’t say much, but you can feel what a burden having been entrusted as the bearer of the ring is for him, 4 foot tall, barefoot, innocent and inexperienced Hobbit that he is. Elijah Wood is great in the role; you can see all the vulnerability and the fear but also the purity and the courage in the world in those big blue eyes.
The 8 other members of the fellowship are also portrayed memorably. As Gandalf, McKellen is as intense as it gets, appearing threatening, but also warm and friendly when it’s befitting. Viggo Mortensen‘s Aragorn, the mortal human royal heir who lost faith in his potential as a ruler, is great. He’s pretty much our badass hero, but he’s a rather unlikely one, all rogue and brooding. Though he does have a few sweet moments with Liv Tyler, playing a beautiful Elvish princess or something whose love motivates him. Sean Bean‘s Boromir, also human, is a bit of a wild card, often driven more by passion than reason, but he’s a fierce fighter and he’s obviously determined to stop the evil forces. Then there’s Frodo’s Hobbit friends, Pippin (Billy Boyd), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Sam (Sean Astin), who are quite careless and foolish, but who have good hearts. Sam, specially, is the most loyal friend Frodo could hope for. They have a very touching scene together late in the film which establishes intriguing ambiguously gay undertones. Also on hand are axe-wielding dwarf Gimly (John-Rhys Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), an elf who can do no wrong with his bow and arrows but, at least in this first chapter, they’re not really defined into clear characters. They still leave a strong impression, if only because they kick major ass during the fight sequences!
You know, I don’t think any film has ever deserved to be called epic as much as this one. The sheer grandeur of the settings, the large cast of colorful characters, the larger than life confrontations. I spent nearly all the film wide-eyed and slack-jawed. New Zealand by itself appears to be just gorgeous, with its tall waterfalls and green prairies, its mountains and its great big skies. Then, through impressive work from set builders and digital effects teams, plenty of marvelous castles and cities are worked into the world near seamlessly. As if it wasn’t enough, filmmaker Peter Jackson pulls all these impossible shots which fly though his locations, further enhancing how big in scope it all is.
Yet Jackson doesn’t just shoot a lot of pretty scenery. He’s telling a big, sprawling story and, as the film rolls on, the narrative becomes more and more urgent, fast-paced and action-packed, with always more terrifying threats to our heroes. The Black Riders chasing down the Hobbits, Gandalf’s magic duel with the corrupted Saruman (Christopher Lee), the showdown with the Cave Troll (which makes a similar scene in “Harry Potter” feel so silly and harmless in retrospect), the hellish Balrog demon, the attack of the Uruk-Hai army. Take the best things about “Conan the Barbarian”, “Braveheart” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, filter them through the manic energy Peter Jackson brought to his “Dead-Alive”, match it with resources usually only accessible to the likes of Lucas and Spielberg, and you’ve got some of the most breath-taking set pieces ever crafted.
“The Fellowship of the Ring” is such an engrossing picture that you completely lose track of the time and the 3 hour running length just flies by. I’m telling you, when it ended, I wasn’t even spent or anything, in fact I was dying to see “The Two Towers” right there, and then bring on “The Return of the King”!