Sunday, October 11, 2009

2001 - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The next film in Matt vs. the Academy, along with its two sequels, hold the special honour of being the only Best Picture nominees in which I have auditioned for a role. Yep, about ten years ago, I got the call from my then agent that I would get the chance to play Samwise Gamgee. At the time, of course, I had no idea that The Lord of the Rings trilogy would become the giant that it has, but I still knew it was an important audition. Unfortunately, I didn't get to read directly for Peter Jackson (but again, he wasn't particularly renowned back then - have you seen Meet the Feebles?), and perhaps it wouldn't have made much difference if I had. For I didn't get the role. Not even a callback, as it happens. But who needs it anyway? What's Sean Astin ever done since then?

Okay, sour grapes aside, this film really should be experienced on the big screen, but my humble 32-inch widescreen TV set had to suffice for this viewing. I also decided to watch the original theatrical version in lieu of the extended edition. Although both were available to me, I reasoned that, for the purposes of this project, I should consider the same version that the Academy voters considered... Plus, it's 30 minutes shorter...

With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the 2001 Best Picture nominee...

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Peter Jackson
Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens & Peter Jackson
(based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkein)
Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm
Academy Awards:
13 nominations
4 wins, including Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects

You don't get much more epic than The Lord of the Rings. The first instalment of the Tolkein trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, introduces us to Frodo Baggins, a young hobbit who, thanks to his uncle Bilbo, is lumped with the task of disposing of a very powerful and magical ring forged by the evil wizard Sauron. Coming along for the ride are three of his young hobbit friends, who are mostly interested in eating rather than staying out of trouble. And trouble is exactly what finds them as Sauron sends all sorts of nasties in an attempt to reclaim the ring. Friendly wizard Gandalf introduces the hobbit gang to what can only be described as the United Nations of Middle-Earth, a council that assigns an Elf, a Dwarf and two Men to accompany Gandalf and the hobbits on their dangerous journey to destroy the ring, thereby destroying Sauron himself.

All the stops are pulled out in this fantasy tale. The production values are simply spectacular, from the stunning sets and costumes to the majestic music and sound. The visual effects are also phenomenal, but ironically, they are almost too good. As impressive as they are, it's a tad distracting to constantly wonder, "How do they do that?" when you should be concentrating on the story. Adding to the list of breathtaking qualities is the cinematography, which owes a lot to the diverse landscapes New Zealand has to offer. The Kiwi tourism board will never find better promotional material.

Now, it's lucky the film has all these wonderful visual and auditory elements because, just like Moulin Rouge, it suffers from a certain superficiality with respect to its characters and dialogue. Everyone just seems so one-dimensional. The language may be pleasantly poetic, if a little flowery, but it doesn't make up for the lack of depth. Why must everything be so black and white? Is it too much to ask for a bit of subtext beneath all those hollow words? It's just not real. Now, before you start saying, "But, Matt, it's not meant to be real - it's fantasy," I understand that. And the fantasy elements of the story are excellent. It's not the wizards and goblins and orcs I have a problem with. Even with fantasy-land characters, there still needs to be emotional content. They may not be human, but we are, so if you hope to engage an audience at a deeper level than just, "Wow, that looks amazing," then you'll need characters that are less plastic than this.

In spite of all that, I did find myself drawn in to the magic and fantasy of it all. In retrospect, it was mostly the sequences that had very little or no dialogue that had the most impact. The battle sequences were particularly gripping and all those sweeping shots of the Fellowship on their journey do make for a rollicking adventure. I definitely can't fault the cast, either. There are several moving scenes for which the performers, along with the stirring score, deserve credit. Ian McKellen, with his classical actor presence, is notably affecting as Gandalf. Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean also manage to forge their own depth to their characters despite the script. Hugo Weaving occasionally becomes reminiscent of Agent Smith, which is unfortunate. And Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett are just perfect as Elves, if only because of their ever so slightly unconventional beauty. I mean, they just look Elvish.

So, just to be clear, I still believe that The Fellowship of the Ring is a well-made film. It's just the general lack of real substance in the dialogue that bothers me. The film has some lofty themes - friendship, love, bravery, destiny, good vs. evil. But they are just treated too artificially for my liking. Fortunately, all the other elements of film-making combine to create something that is entertaining to watch. Just goes to show what you can do with a bit of money...


  1. I found a rare video of Ian McKellen giving tips on acting. Maybe if you would have seen this, you would have gotten the part, Matt :)

  2. Ah, it's so obvious now. I was supposed to *pretend* to be Sam. Tsk, what was I thinking? :-)

  3. Matt Foster, Matt Foster, Matt Foster - Action...(Sam) "Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can't carry it for you... but I can carry you!" - Cut...Matt Foster, Matt Foster.

  4. Matt, please don’t destroy my wonderment for this film. Having read the books when I was young and having worn the “Frodo Lives” buttons during the 60’s I could not imagine how anyone could grasp the imagination of Tolkien’s book, but Peter Jackson had me envisioning everything I could remember. Maybe the characters weren’t as deep as you may have liked but for sheer wonder this film was my pick for Best Picture and I’ll be watching it every time is it’s on TV even though I have every possible version of the DVD also. As my wife says “How many times can you watch the same thing over and over” I just can.

    Sal D

  5. The Fantasy film and by association the Science Fiction film have had the least success and some would say respect from AMPAS. Only one has won a Best Picture Oscar (LOTR-The Return of the King) and few nominated at all. The fact that each of the Lord of the Rings trilogy received Best Picture nominations is a remarkable accomplishment. Unlike just about all the other nominees in these genres, LOTR is an adaptation of a beloved series of books. As good as cinema can render a visual conception of a fantasy novel, I don't believe anything can compare with a reader's own imagination. For this reason, I have to applaud Peter Jackson's accomplishment. I think it will be the benchmark for this genre for a very long time.

    To be honest, I am a much bigger fan of traditional dramatic film, set in the real world. It's my limitation, but despite the visceral thrills the LOTR films bring to me, the emotional connection never quite reaches the levels of realistic film. That said, I think I can say that The Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite of the trilogy. Perhaps it was the scenes in The Shire, or the innocence, and loss of it, that grabbed me. I'll have more to say about parts 2 and 3 in their respective years of release. For 2001, this film was a present that I'm glad I got to open.

    This sounds silly, but sometimes I allow myself a "Back to the Future" fantasy when I watch a contemporary special effects movie. I imagine what it would be like to show this film as a 13 year old, back in 1960 - a time when my friends and I would gorge ourselves on these types of movies (as schlocky as they were back then). I think that "The Fellowship of the Ring" would be the film I'd take in my DeLorean back to that time.