I’d been waiting so long for what a movie like The Fellowship of the Ring promised; magic, mystery, and adventure. I’d been in a major funk lately and I wanted a movie that I could completely absorb, or better yet, could completely absorb me. A movie that would place me in a world so believable, so much deeper and richer, that I could forget the real world for a few hours. After all, that’s what movies are for, right? And what better movie than one based on the works on J.R.R. Tolkien? While I didn’t exactly get my wish, I did get something else, something just as valuable.
The movie begins with a voiceover (by Cate Blanchett as the elvish queen Galadriel) explaining the events leading up to the film, a crash course in Middle-earth history if you will. Ages ago, rings were distributed to all of the major races, giving them dominion over their realms. But the evil lord Sauron crafted a ring that would give him control over all other rings, allowing him to rule Middle-earth.
In a titanic battle, the major races banded together and defeated Sauron, but the allure of the ring prevented its destruction. Instead, it passed from hand to hand, awaiting a time to rejoin its master, until it met a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. And it’s here where the movie truly begins.
I won’t go into details about the plot, because you’ve probably read plenty of reviews where the plot has already been repeated over and over again. And changes are, you’ve probably read the books. If you haven’t heard of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary Lord of the Rings trilogy, then you’ve probably been in a cave for about 50 years. It’s been touted as the greatest literary accomplishment of all time, and is one of the best-selling series of books of all time. It has gone far beyond being a cult favorite, becoming more of a cultural icon. Certainly, no mere film (or trilogy of films) could hope to capture the entire depth and lore of Tolkien’s novels.
But director Peter Jackson (The Frighteners, Dead Alive) certainly comes pretty darn close. The story has been edited and condensed. But even so, The Fellowship of the Ring is still an epic in every sense of the word. It’s an exhausting film to sit through, and not just because of the length (nearly 3 hours). The pacing of the film, from the opening narration on, rarely lets up. There is no relief from the constant threat of Sauron recovering the ring, from the forces of evil overcoming all. This sense of urgency creates a very dark undercurrent that flows throughout the film. Although there are moments of humor and hope, this is not a fun, mindless action film.
Visually, this film’s a stunner. Jackson stops at nothing to convince you that this is Middle-earth, and every sight you see deepens that belief. From the pastoral beauty of the hobbits’ Shire to the sweeping grace of the elvish city Rivendell to the deep mines of Moria, there is nothing plain about this film. And it’s all captured with a masterful use of stunning cinematography, beautiful locations (this film should be a travel brochure for New Zealand), and extensive computer effects.
In all honesty, the special effects and CGI were somewhat troubling to me. Not because they were cheap or poorly done. There are only a handful of scenes that seem a little, well, lacking (Frodo Baggins confrontation with Galadriel still seems pretty hokey). It’s just that, in today’s movie climate, we’re used to seeing big budget effects all over the place. And because they’re eye candy more often than not, you just get used to them.
Then along comes a film like The Fellowship of the Ring, where every effect feels like it has a purpose, like it’s necessary to create the belief that you are venturing through Middle-earth with Frodo and his companions. It takes time to get used to the fact that these aren’t gratuitous computer renderings.
But it’s not in the visual effects where the magic of this movie lies. Above all else, this a story of rich detail, and nowhere is that better seen than in the characters. And holding its own against the special effects is the brilliant acting. And thankfully, Jackson exploits this to his advantage. Even the most minor of characters, such as the elvish princess Arwen, feel fleshed out and real.
The core of the movie revolves around Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins, the ringbearer) and Ian McKellan (Gandalf the wizard). Wood has that perfect balance of innocence and sorrow, and truly becomes the young hobbit forced to deal with the temptations of great evil. McKellan brings a sense of gravity to his role, at once both protective and intimidating. And my favorite Ring character, Aragorn, is portrayed with a fine sense of nobility by Viggo Mortensen. But the most unrecognizable of the primary actors is John Rhys-Davies (as Gimli the dwarf), due to the special effects involved in shrinking his character and the dwarvish makeup, but that doesn’t diminish his presence at all.
However, the elements of the film that struck me the most, that convinced me of its wonder, is its morality and spirituality. Admittedly, I read the books quite some time ago, but back then I never got a real feeling of the ring’s malevolence, it’s sinfulness. It’s impossible to watch this movie, and not get that. It’s heart-wrenching to watch the destruction the ring causes, as it makes good men go bad, tears loyalties apart, and tempts everyone it comes in contact with. And though the evil of the ring is never bandied about, neither is the fact that forces of good are working against it.
Tolkien worked Christian themes into his novels, though never as explicitly as Tolkien’s contemporary, C.S. Lewis, did with his Chronicles of Narnia. However, these themes were something I never picked up on while reading the books so long ago. So it was very interesting for me to see these spiritual motifs worked in subtly on the big screen, but with great effect.
Aside from the opening scenes, there are no epic battles. There are plenty of swordfights, but the big battles we do see are the personal ones waged against temptation and despair (especially those fought by Frodo as the ring’s holder). These are far more gripping. They are what makes the movie realistic for me, what elevates it far above some mere swords and sorcery epic. These struggles, more than any jaw-dropping visual effect or masterful acting, give The Fellowship of the Ring its power and depth. Everything else just bolsters that fact.
It’s a powerful movie, and all flaws aside, one that made me richer for having seen it… not just because it’s a swashbuckling tale of adventure, but because it’s such a spiritual one.