The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Top Ten List: #6 of 2001 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #5 of 2001 (world premieres)
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Director: Peter Jackson. Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Ian Holm, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, voice of Andy Serkis. Screenplay: Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson (based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien).

Photo © 2000 MK2 Productions/Bahman Ghobadi Films
On paper, the prospect sounds delirious: a three-hour, $100 million fantasy epic with massive battle scenes, a cast of non-stars (the closest we come to Hollywood is Liv Tyler), and a bouquet of disparate landscapes that are neither extant in the real world nor viable as wholly digital creations. Some of the dialogue is in Elvish, a lovely language that no one outside of certain convention halls actually speaks. And all of this action, these characters, this visual majesty rests on the outsized dramatic and ethical import invested in a small ring, a circlet of molten iron. How is the screen going to communicate that? (At least Titanic's blue diamond was ostentatiously beveled, and seemingly as big as Kate Winslet's head.)

Not a single damn thing about the Lord of the Rings trilogy is high-concept. You can't sell these movies in a simple tagline ("Will Smith vs. the aliens,"; "Ben Affleck vs. Tojo," etc.). Even more dauntingly, the films are awaited by two audiences with entirely different expectations: the Tolkien fans who have memorized the novels and will not be satisfied with cowardice or compromises, and the Ignorati like myself who don't know the books (I'm up to the Gollum sequence in The Hobbit) but need some real convincing to understand why the Internet has been rattling for all these months. How wondrous, then, to see a Hollywood studio—and not just any studio, but New Line Cinemas, an outfit forever ensconced on the precipice of bankruptcy—shoot the moon with a blockbuster that demands real creativity, careful story management, spot-on casting, and unprecedented visual imagination to capture its audience. And the best news? The movie is a revelation: the Tolkien mythos and the equally distinctive directorial style of Peter Jackson have synergized beautifully, instead of just clashing in fascinating ways like the Kubrick/Spielberg lichen A.I. Artificial Intelligence. What we have here, folks, is a real goddamned MOVIE.

"The world is changed," announces Cate Blanchett's husky sigh in the movie's haunting opening narration. "I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air," she says, and right away, The Fellowship of the Ring tips off its viewers to one of the film's unique and galvanizing pleasures. In the same year that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within decided that not just sets and effects but actual actors could be conjured up 2-D, Peter Jackson has crafted an epic spectacle that relishes its materiality. The forests, caverns, glades, and fires have been constructed and photographed with such deep focus and vivid detail that the flat screen can barely contain them. Check out those palpable grains in Bilbo Baggins' wooden table, the gingery fur on Frodo's feet, the sooty moisture on the walls of Moria—everything in The Fellowship of the Ring has a specific weight and texture that perfectly suits a tale about an entire planet in genuine physical peril.

In other words, Jackson and his team of collaborators have planted us in a creative realm completely opposed to the soulless and, to me, ineffective planes of The Matrix, a film whose alarmist messages about the end of life as we know it were constantly undermined by its own full-scale embrace of sleek surfaces, matte projection, CGI graphics—a world lacking in human or animal thickness. Jackson's approach, honed by all those Harryhausen tributes in Dead Alive and Claymation revelries in Heavenly Creatures, couldn't be more different. When, toward the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Christopher Lee's dark lord Saruman starts disintering mud-dripping Orcs from the ground to fight his battles, Fellowship provides its most fearsome and culminating vision of a world that has literally seen evil ripped from its soil and turned back upon itself. It's a terrifying notion but a terrifically compelling spectacle, precisely because Jackson takes the conceptual heft of Tolkien's story and the material bulk of his own creation so seriously. In a different film, the incessant, precipitous plunges and rapid orbits of Andrew Lesnie's camera would seem grandiose, but Jackson has pre-empted such objections by creating a world that urgently demands to be seen.

Amidst this astounding mise-en-scène, the narrative of The Fellowship of the Ring plays out in tense, front-loaded sections. Blanchett's prologue, catching us up on centuries of battle and greed, lingers darkly beneath the idyllic Shire sequence at the film's outset, despite its bright palette of greens and yellows (more memories of Heavenly Creatures). The first actors we see—Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and Ian Holm as Bilbo, all of them born for these roles—engage in a series of affectionate discursive exchanges that establish the film's belief in male camaraderie. It is amazing, given the sets and visual surprises, that what really glues us to these scenes is the talk, thanks to the strong, clear writing and the earnestness with which the cast animates it.

Even as the characters multiply and the subplots expand, these remain the cardinal virtues of The Fellowship of the Ring: an exacting, intensive vision of the physical world, a professional cast dedicated to the emotional stakes of the plot, and a sustained thematic engagement with the idea of moral alliance in the face of chaos. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the Fellowship that eventually forms around Frodo's personal quest emanates a tougher, more nuanced example of tense coalition than did Spielberg's all-male cadre in Saving Private Ryan, Ridley Scott's in Black Hawk Down, or even Martin Scorsese's in The Last Temptation of Christ. Tolkien and his committed interpreters emphasize throughout that power is contaminating more often than it is elevating, that teams are constantly vulnerable to the weaknesses of their members. This viewpoint escapes cynicism because the constant threat of treachery makes the dedication of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn (despite his quiet ambivalence about his own leadership potential) and Sean Astin's Sam (who is, in interesting ways, in love with Frodo) all the more appreciable. The movie's characterizations are as sure-footed as its production design.

Only occasionally does the film, speaking of treacheries, betray a reflexive awareness of its own magnificence. When Sam enters the Dwarf city in the Mines of Moria and intones, "There's an eye-opener," the screenplay seems to advertise its images a little too preciously. Smug instances of Hollywood sloganeering ("Let's hunt some Orc!") are, thankfully, just as rare. A more lurking problem in Fellowship, though probably endemic to the demands of an Odyssean plot, is that certain stretches of the plot feel like compressions of set-pieces with too little connecting material. A chaotic run-in with a cave troll, for instance, leads instantly into the approach of a phalanx of Orcs, who retreat to make way for an enormous, horrifying Balrog (a distant but discernible progeny of the Id Monster in 1956's Forbidden Planet). Pauses between these episodes, of course, would have accumulated to an already-robust running time of 178 minutes, but I am convinced that either of the audiences with whom I've seen The Fellowship of the Ring would have sat, elatedly, for even longer.

Overall, The Fellowship of the Ring may wind up looking better or worse once its imminent, already-filmed sequels The Two Towers and The Return of the King have clarified whether Jackson can maintain his relentless pace, and whether some enticing cutaways in the first installment—the Arwen/Aragorn romance, the accelerated aging of Bilbo, the comic figures of Pippin and Merry—are enriched to the same level as the more central material. Still, The Fellowship of the Ring is more than an auspicious start to Jackson's trilogy: it is a cure-all for a year full of dismal mainstream cinema, a reinvigoration of the flagging fantasy genre, and an integrated vision of otherworldliness on the order of The Wizard of Oz, Blade Runner, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It fades out on a hero, Frodo, who seems poignantly regretful that he ever accepted his task. Jackson, thankfully, seems unplagued by such reservations. That such a bold, inventive artist has embraced the challenge of telling Frodo's story is cause for celebration. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Peter Jackson
Best Supporting Actor: Ian McKellen
Best Adapted Screenplay: Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson
Best Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie
Best Art Direction: Grant Major; Dan Hennah
Best Costume Design: Ngila Dickson & Richard Taylor
Best Film Editing: John Gilbert
Best Original Score: Howard Shore
Best Original Song: "May It Be"
Best Sound: Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Gethin Creagh, and Hammond Peek
Best Visual Effects: Jim Rygiel, Randall William Cook, Richard Taylor, and Mark Stetson
Best Makeup: Peter Owen & Richard Taylor

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Peter Jackson
Best Original Score: Howard Shore
Best Original Song: "May It Be"

Other Awards:
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Supporting Actor (McKellen)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Original Score
National Board of Review: Best Supporting Actress (Blanchett; also cited for The Man Who Cried and The Shipping News); Best Art Direction; Special Achievement Award (Jackson)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Picture; Best Director; Best Visual Effects; Best Makeup
AFI Awards: Best Picture; Best Production Design; Best Digital Effects
Satellite Awards: Best Picture (Animated/Mixed Media); Best Film Editing; Best Sound; Best Visual Effects

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