January 2004

THE RETURN OF THE KING

A film by Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Aston, Ian McKellan, and too many others to name.

It can't be denied that this film, the third in Peter Jackson's monumental Lord of the Rings series, wraps things up nicely, is a visual treat of surpassing sumptuousness, and doesn't have a boring moment. There are Oscar-caliber performances (and FX) in it, and only a nasty, narrow-minded jade would quibble at the editing and writing.

Pardon me whilst I don my "Nasty Narrow-minded Jade" hat. (And I apologize for the rather disjointed nature of this reviwe, which has turned out to be more Impressionistic than I had intended. Still, it is what it is.)

Ahhhh. Now, where was we, my preciousssss?

For openers, this film is within whispering distance of three and a half hours in length. I don't mind the length - as I said, I was never bored. But at no point are we given respite. What the hell ever happened to intermissions? After about two hours and change, the urgings of my bladder and stomach could no longer be ignored. Having read the trilogy numerous times, I had a pretty good idea of where I was in terms of plot so I felt able to sneak out, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn't miss much. I fled the darkened theatre for a pit stop in the men's room and an overpriced snack of popcorn and diet soda. I missed about seven minutes of the film, including the snippet in which Theoden King exhorts his outnumbered followers to battle, using the "This is not that day!" line that has cropped in the trailers. I settled back into my seat feeling much relieved, so to speak.

But here's the crux, for me. During the entire three-hours-plus time, I never forgot I was watching a movie. I was never swept up and carried away by the film, despite its obvious masterful depiction of Tolkein's story. Peter Jackson has said that this film, the third of the three, was his favorite even from the beginning, while the live-action footage was being shot back in 1999. Personally, I'll opt for the first one, The Fellowship of the Ring. This one, The Return of the King, might be a case of too much of a good thing.

I'm not one of those people who complains about the altering of Tolkein's story for dramatic purposes. I think all of Jackson's editorial choices were good ones, aside from omitting the book's coda, "The Scouring of the Shire," and the glossing over of Saruman's fate. (One and the same, really.) But even I have to admit that this change doesn't hurt the movie.

And I can't deny that Jackson has matched my imagination and surpassed it in many places, most notably during the battle for Minas Tirith, which is my favorite part of the current movie. I doubt that it could have been done better by any director on the planet. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I doubt the entire trilogy could have been interpreted better by any director on the planet.

So what the hell am I complaining about? Well, I am not really complaining. I am merely wondering why I didn't like the film more than I did, especially given that I thought the first two were masterpieces. And that's not a word I throw about lightly, believe me.

In retrospect, I began to be disenchanted when I noticed that Howard Shore's score seemed awkward at moments, almost amateurish. A good score is supposed to support the film, not draw attention to itself. But at moments Shore's music forced itself into my consciousness and dimmed the magic spell the film was trying to cast on me.

In fact, please note that word "trying." Perhaps The Return of the King tries too hard, and ends up being a bit self-conscious because of the effort. Consider Legolas's killing of the murmak -- what was the point, really, except that he had a cool scene in each of the two earlier films, and needed one here. But The Empire Strikes Back did that scene, and better, more than twenty years ago.

And I have to cite what I view as some misplaced attempts at humor. Gimli isn't supposed to be a wise-guy, is he? And early on in the film, there was one reaction shot with Gollum (Andy Serkis) where he cowers behind a tree after being attacked by Sam, which was right out of blackface shuck-and-jive comedy. A ripple of laughter floated through the audience at the screening I attended, which was surely not Jackson's intent.

And while we're on the subject of Gollum, it's my belief that some of the scenes with him were throw-aways, quick cuts or asides there just to show how slick the animators have gotten at their craft. Believe me, as one who has tinkered a bit with animation, I appreciated it. But as a movie-goer, one who is trying to get into the story, I already knew how wretched the little bastard was - why keep pounding that into me? I'd rather have had a bit less of Gollum and a bit more of Saruman. And that ending - they completely overturned Tolkein's extended Shire-bound coda in favor of an extended schtick-laden scene at the Grey Havens. I mean, how much do these hobbit men like each other, anyway? The gay subtext in Tolkein's work, which never overwhelms the thread of the plot, really comes more to the fore in the film with loving glances and such. True, all that sort of thing and more is in the book, but times were different then, and one can't escape the relatively large homoerotic charge that builds up across The Return of the King. All of the females, even Shelob, are somehow larger than life and mostly magical. The one actual romance in the book, that between Arwen and Aragorn., requires that the elf maiden give up her immortality if she is to be able to handle her love for the human.

Don't elves go to school precisely to learn how to deal with this sort of thing? How to keep their emotions in check, I mean? As far as Arwen (Liv Tyler) as an elf, a supernatural, immortal being, is concerned, Aragorn ought to be little more than a talented domestic pet. Endearing, loveable, sure - but not acceptable as a love-object. Just allowing her the capacity to feel that sort of emotion for a human de-elphainzes her a bit. Is that really what Tolkein wants?

Even Elrond (Hugo Weaving) caves when his daughter makes mooneyes at him. I dunno, all of this works better in the books than in the film. Maybe it's the high mythopoeic content of all of this. Tolkein is not good with individuals. He's great with sweeping plot and history, but as far as the individuals go, he doesn't "ring" quite true.

Many moments are thrilling and almost painful to watch. The film opens with a scene in which Smeagol and his friend Deagol discover the Ring while fishing. Smeagol murders his friend for the seductive trinket. Thus begins his descent into degradation and misery. It's gripping.

Also, the scene in which the Riders of Rohan suddenly appear on the ridge overlooking orc-beleagured Minas Tirth is a supreme moment of filmmaking. Then they drive the wedge of their forces into the right flank of the goblin army. Outstanding!

Props to Sean Astin, whose Sam rises above the forelock-tugging Tolkein character into something heroic on his own. Sam's defining moment is his fight against the hideous spider Shelob, and the movie aquits itself very well here. Shelob is as nasty as anyone could want her to be.

My fave part of the book was Eowyn's (Miranda Otto) confrontation with the Nazgul Lord. This was given shorter shrift than I would have liked, but was still a memorable moment. My complaint with the use of Eowyn is more basic. In the book she rode out in disguise, and not even Merry knew who this slim young man was. In the film, no attempt whatsoever is made to hide her identity, robbing her words to the Nazgul leader (who cannot be slain by any man) - "I am no man!" - of some of their punch, had her identity as Theoden's niece been suddenly revealed. It is a small point, no doubt, but it would have made for a fine movie moment.

Ah well -- I know I'm in the minority. The movie really is good, of course, but it could have been -- and should have been -- better.



Recent Raves:

THOSE OF MY BLOOD
A novel by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

2003 Benbella Books
www.benbellabooks.com

Jacqueline Lichtenberg, best known for her Sime-Gen novels, here takes up the challenge of writing a crossover. But not just a two-way cross over: she's written a science-fiction romance starring vampires. Her blood-drinking luren, as they're called, are descendants of a space-faring race marooned on Earth some centuries ago. They have some of the commonly accepted powers of media-type vampires, as well as some of the weaknesses.

The book's lead is Dr. Titus Shiddehara, an astronomer. Twenty years before the book opens, Titus, then known as Darrell Raaj, had a life and a fiancée. But a car crash ended that life. To his shock, he awoke as full-fledged vampire. Now, having pledged never to drink human blood again, he lives on a synthetic compound. There are other luren like Tutus, calling themselves Residents. But there are also the Tourists, vampires who have not renounced human blood.

The Tourists and the Residents have kept their clashes private over the past few hundred years, knowing that humans would destroy them all if the truth became known. But now an alien spacecraft has crashed on the Moon, a luren craft that proves Man is not alone. Humans are working to contact the aliens - but Titus knows that the aliens are luren, and that attracting their attention may have fatal results for all mankind.

Lichtenberg gets a lot of this right. It's nifty that she's staged the second half of the book on the Moon, long associated with vampiric doings. The book moves along fairly well, although I confess that I had a hard time getting into it - the author drops us into the middle of events with very little preamble and it took me a while to get my footing. In fact, the book reads as if it may be part of a series, but I can't determine if this is true.

Actually, my only real complaint about Those of My Blood is that the romantic element is curiously muted for a book that won the Romantic Times Award for best SF novel. My current romantic standard in pop culture is The Bridges of Madison County. Lichtenberg's book doesn't quite have the star-crossed tragic underpinnings of that work. I would have liked to have seen more heartaches in it. Don't get me wrong - there are many ups and downs between Titus and his lady-love, but I feel that they are there more to drive the sf portion of the plot. Lichtenberg is a talented writer who's been in the business for a good long time now. I'd like to see her do some more work with these characters, and maybe tinker a bit more with the balance between romance and science fiction. It's certainly a niche that can be more fully explored, and she's made an excellent start.