Spectacular it may be, but LOTR lacks lasting value
The New Zealand Herald</ – March 31, 2004
Here in the land of tall-poppy cutters, it takes no imagination to find reasons to resent the loftiest of our latest crop, Peter Jackson. Let me, therefore, declare straight off that I have limitless respect for Jackson’s managerial capacities and showman’s instincts. I admire him as much as I’d admire any local entrepreneur who cracked, say, the international tomato sauce market.
Jackson has beaten Hollywood’s moguls at their own game, given hundreds of inventive New Zealanders worthwhile, lucrative work and enhanced tourism into the bargain. Bring back knighthoods, I say, and give him one.
So when I add that The Lord of the Rings trilogy is, as a work of cinematic art, ham-fisted, shallow, bombastic and laughably overrated, don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticising Jackson but the degraded state of popular movies.
Jackson’s epic represents the victory of special effects over dramatic art.
Of course, special effects have been with cinema since the beginning. Georges Melies’ droll 1902 A Trip to the Moon, the first sci-fi movie, contained enchanting trick photography. Audiences were astonished by the 1932 King Kong and gawked at the dinosaurs (live lizards) that Victor Mature battled in the 1940 One Million BC.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey showed special-effects models can be beautiful, and computer-generated effects entered film in a big way with the first Star Wars movie, accelerating with Jurassic Park and The Matrix.
The amazement special effects induces tends to be shortlived. Filmgoers grow tired of kinds of effect, and then want more. The space travel shots of Star Wars now seem trite, and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park look creaky and artificial.
Audience habituation means that producers are stuck in the upward spiral of an endless special-effects arms race, with demands for bigger explosions, uglier villains, more frenzied, realistic violence, louder noises and ever-expanding battle scenes. A computer-generated crowd, according to the Hollywood rule, must not be smaller than the crowds in last month’s releases.
The Rings trilogy is an unremarkable, boys’ own, action-adventure movie. Take away the frenetic effects and there is not enough on screen to keep even a subnormal human mind alive. The narrative drags for long stretches, in part from the decision – applauded by Tolkien obsessives – to follow the books fairly closely rather than construct a dramatically integrated trilogy that could stand on its own. Special effects are these films’ raison d’etre.
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