Lord of the Rings Trilogy Marathon
If there’s one thing gained from attending El Paso’s Alamo Drafthouse marathon of THE LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy, it is that these films remain the gold standard of the fantasy genre for the cinema. Seeing them all back to back, presented in their intended extended formats, was absolutely perfect and one of the great cinematic adventures of this year. Looking at them through a retrospective lens one can see the incredible canvas that these films play with; everything from the groundbreaking work of miniatures to the operatic score by Howard Shore holds up magnificently.
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
One of the most amazing things about re-watching THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is how wonderful it is in its extended edition format. This extended cut actually makes an already tremendous film into kind of a pitch perfect one. THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is singular in its complete obliteration of world building, set up, character introductions, tone and style; it remains a gorgeous piece of cinematic storytelling. This is the one that benefits the most from all the additional material that Peter Jackson cut from the theatrical cut because it allows the film to breathe and flesh out an already impressive world in an even better way. The amount of world building that Jackson does in the iconic prologue scene is unrivaled – he sets up the tone, stakes, the culture of Middle Earth and the villainy of Sauron in a truly special way. Jackson’s material just fleshes out more of Bilbo’s relationship with Gandalf, the Fellowship as a whole gets even more time to shine and secondary characters like Boromir have more time to shine and to develop as three dimensional characters. This is a cut that is over 3 hours long and even though one does feel that new running time, it still remains an improvement over the theatrical cut and just this great introduction to this world that feels so alive and fully realized. Every time the characters smoke you can almost breathe that smoke or any time that Saruman has his orcs ripping out trees, you can feel the branches coming out of the ground. It’s an incredibly realized cut that shows a director fully confident of the material he’s adapting (it’s still shocking to me how he made these three films by having previously made much smaller and tonally different movies like DEAD ALIVE or MEET THE FEEBLES).
THE TWO TOWERS
If THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING has the better extended cut then THE TWO TOWERS has the better theatrical cut and as a result is the one that benefits the least from an extended edition. However, this still remains my favorite entry into the series just because it does character archetypes so well (obviously this goes back to Tolkien in general) and story wise because much more complicated and mature. Tonally this is a film that is drastically different from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING and focuses on building on what the first film set up. THE TWO TOWERS represents the best of what sequels should do which is expand upon what the original created and flesh out characters and storylines so they become richer and more complex. Yeah, there’s some padding in the extended edition mostly with Merry and Pippin but the overall message and outstanding set pieces of this make it another remarkable entry. Character relationships between Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli grow and continue to become more fleshed out and the ideas of kingship and duty to one’s kingdom are wonderfully explored with King Theoden of Rohan and Aragorn. It’s a great relationship that affects both of them in significant ways all the way up to THE RETURN OF THE KING. The characters that benefit the most from the extended edition are the Frodo/Sam/Gollum sequences which do seem a little bit more fleshed out and the entire Rohan arc of the film, along with many of its characters like Eomer, Eowyn and Theoden. Another thing worth mentioning is that Andy Serkis’s performance in this film is extraordinary; along with the impeccable visual effects he makes you believe the dual identities of Smeagol and Gollum in a way that still remains a touchstone for motion capture. It also doesn’t hurt that this film contains one of the most impressively staged and constructed action set pieces of all time. I’m talking, of course, about the Battle of Helm’s Deep – a ferociously tense and suspenseful siege sequence complete with miniatures, thousands of extras and groundbreaking visual effects… not to mention actual dramatic stakes for the characters we love.
THE RETURN OF THE KING
One of the rare concluding chapters that just goes all out in spades in a monumental way and THE RETURN OF THE KING is easily one of the best, if not the best, third chapter of a trilogy ever crafted. Winner of 11 Academy Awards this four-hour masterpiece is a showcase for Jackson’s directorial prowess and the passion of bringing Tolkien’s vision to the big screen in the best way possible. The extended edition makes the film roundly about four and a half hours but it rushes through those like crazy with incredible set pieces (including a great sendoff for Saruman) and great character moments like Faramir/Eowyn or the Mouth of Sauron but some of the characters that benefit the most from this longer cut are Pippin, Gandalf, Aragorn, Merry, Faramir and Eowyn. Speaking of the tonal shift between THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING and THE TWO TOWERS, THE RETURN OF THE KING also changes that in supreme fashion with the tone somehow becoming more pessimistic yet still hopeful and it is a showcase for the consequences and horrors of war – its effects on people, cities, leaders and many more. If THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING shows Jackson as a very confident filmmaker then THE RETURN OF THE KING shows him as a master of his craft and the height of his powers. In terms of performance, editing, music, writing and direction THE RETURN OF THE KING is simply staggering. It deserves to be in the same league as some of the great epics of our time like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Re-watching it served as a reminder that this is a war film with something to say and it allows for those quieter moments of introspection and character in a really flawless way. One of the scenes that come to mind is a dialogue exchange between Gandalf and Pippin in which they discuss death and the afterlife. It’s an incredibly powerful moment that these characters at the worst time of their lives and facing the greatest challenge and discussing the possible outcome of their death yet still finding hope in that. That moment remains one of the touchstones of the third film and the series as a whole. But this film truly deserves to be seen on the big screen because it is monumental in its construction and execution – just some of the visuals on display are life changing and awe inspiring.
Re-watching THE LORD OF THE RINGS on the big screen really brought out to mind how timeless this story truly is. In many ways, it’s the film series that we need the most at this time since, as Sam in THE TWO TOWERS says, there’s something about having hope even in the darkest of times and desiring that there’s some good in this world that is worth fighting for. Amidst this wonderful medieval/fantasy story influenced by classic archetypes dating back to Arthurian legend, the main crux of the story is having hope even in the most difficult of circumstances. It doesn’t matter if you’re an elf, a wizard, a warrior princess, a man refusing to accept his destiny as a king or a small hobbit, as long as you have the drive and the hope you can change the course of the future. It’s a trilogy that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible and it offers more than a few rewards upon repeat viewings. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it’s aged like a fine wine.