Since The Lord of the Rings is not only based on a well-known and widely-read book, but extremely well-covered by the media, by advertisements, and behind-the-scenes-type-shows, I won’t even try not to reveal story points. You already know just about everything there is to know. And you’ve probably already decided whether or not you’re going to see this excellent movie. So, just a few comments.
Other reviews of this movie have said that it was disappointing. That the characters are flat, and show no internal conflict or growth except one. That like the current bout of Star Wars movies, this part of The Lord of the Rings is simply plodding along towards a known outcome that removes any tension or suspense from the proceedings. In some ways, all of these things are true.
I heard a lot of hype about the battle of Helm’s Deep. It is the climactic battle between the 10,000+ strong army of evil against the remaining forces of Men totalling less than the number of people in the movie theatre with me as I watched it, and you and I both know how it turns out in the end. I heard that they spent over two months filming this battle, and several of the primary actors were actually injured during its production. Exciting new AI software was generated to bring the 10,000+ fighters to realistic life without having to outfit and train 10,000+ extras.
Now, I forgot to check my watch, but for everything I heard about it, it didn’t seem long or interesting or detailed enough. I’ve seen huge, realistic battle sequences in movies before, and although the sheer scale of this one was much larger, it did not have as much of an impact on me. The battles in Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart make an impact, and I think a lot of it has to do with focus. Most of the shots in the battle of Helm’s Deep have a huge scope and a lot of camera motion, leaving me with a blurry impression that a battle is taking place without actually seeing much in the way of actual fighting or dying by good or evil. Plenty of good dwarf humor, but very little dwarf fighting.
I may be looking for the wrong kind of thing though. In the last couple of days I saw movies like The Matrix and Equilibrium, whose fight scenes have similar odds of more than 30 bad guys to every good guy, but which have fight scenes I get excited about. Monday during Equilibrium I was squealing and vibrating and pointing with excitement during fight scenes I’d already seen a little over a week before. I could feel the intensity and skill and energy and focus and challenge of every move and strike and attempt at striking in every fight, and it made it interesting, especially since the fights were so fast-paced. The main characters from the fellowship of the ring who are fighting at Helm’s Deep are supposed to be the best of the best of middle earth, so I expect them to fight with a similar level of skill and intensity and focus as the fights I like, and for at least some of the good and the evil soldiers to fight with at least some level of skill. And here’s where I think I’ve gone wrong: I expect to see it.
Here’s an interesting thing to keep an eye out for during the Battle of Helm’s Deep: Watch the difference being AI makes in the intensity, detail, and quality of our heroes right after the dwarf toss. It’s only for a few seconds, but in a nearly impossible crane shot the characters had to be replaced by CGI & I tell you that that was the best fighting I saw. I get the feeling that if the evil forces weren’t all black-skinned creatures in black armor on black ground, pressed together into a nearly continuous mass of bodies, at night, in the rain, I might have been able to see more than a roiling sea of shades of black on black and been impressed by the fighting there, too.
I guess I’m saying that the live-action fighting was not as well choreographed as I would have liked, and the direction and editing left something to be desired. If there had been more clear and convincing depictions of individual conflicts between the vast crowd-on-crowd action, I would have been more satisfied. Certainly the scale of the battle was conveyed, but after I was sure a full quarter of the good forces had been destroyed there was a shot of them all rushing forward as a group, and as I saw that I turned around to see the audience of about 350 people behind me, and it seemed a smaller group than the remaining forces of good. They didn’t feel nearly as outnumbered to me as they should have. Oh, and where did the 9k+ dead bodies go? They should be stacked against/around the wall dozens of feet high.
Now, on to the characters. For the most part, we already know everything we’re going to know about these characters at the beginning of the film as at the end, even if we’ve never laid eyes on the book. There are plenty of new characters introduced in this volume. So many so that several times I had no idea which exiled group of human warriors I was looking at, what their leader’s name was, or even whether or not I’d ever seen them before. There was a powerful scene where a character totally changed in appearance before our eyes, but I was focused so intensely on HIS eyes that until there was a subtle change in them I did not notice that his entire visage had been shifting around them. Consequently I was a little confused about who this new person was that everyone was treating like that other guy that disappeared without explanation…
So, for the most part, the characters you already know, you already know everything there is to know about them, and the characters that are introduced are exactly as they seem at first which often means indiscernable from other new characters. Still, many of these characters are fun or interesting to watch, or at least bring the world to life by existing at all. And then there are Gandalf and Gollum, Samwise and Sméagol and Frodo.
Gandalf’s changes hint at something very interesting and the possibility that there is something new and innocent about him. Every scene he appears in for the first half hour or more make it seem like he (and his change) will play an important part in the story to come. Maybe they will in the third installment. They certainly didn’t here. Gandalf, a powerful wizard able to defeat a Balrog and return from the grave, who claims to have known every spell of man and elf alike, able to communicate with creatures big and small, does little more at the Battle of Helm’s Deep than smack people with his staff and glow a little. If the most powerful wizards were this ineffective in battles, no one would ever play them in role playing games or games like EQ. Gandalf has very few lines and very little screen time in the second half of the film, and although he was promissing at the beginning, he did not come through on that promise.
Gollum did not do much in the first movie, but is a major player in this one. Gollum and Sméagol are probably the most entertaining characters so far in either movie. Sméagol is the only character that showed any real signs of growth or real depth, and Gollum was constantly trying to suppress those very features in him. They have both been transformed by the ring of power, but Gollum is basically the ring itself or the power of Sauron speaking and acting directly while SmÈagol hold on to remnants of his former humanity. Their struggles with each other and with trying to attain and to serve the ring of power are the most intense and believable struggles in the entire movie.
Samwise does not see the struggle between Gollum and Sméagol, and does not trust or respect either of them. Their relationship is forced by Frodo, and the tension between them is palpable. In the first volume, Sam seems simple, weak, and pitiable. He does not want to have even left home but has made a promise to keep his best friend safe and does not know how to break his word. In this volume, he appears to have grown some backbone. He has become hardened by their journey and by battle, and the weight and difficulty of their quest weighs heavily on him. He just wants to get it over with, get back to the Shire, and put this all behind him. Everything he says and does is based out of that selfish and short-sighted drive, and it puts Frodo between a rock and a hard place.
Frodo is finally being taken in by the power of the ring, although he stays strong enough or protected enough throughout the entire film not to put it on once. If you watch closely you can even start to see a little of the voice that speaks through Gollum coming through Frodo. Actually, you probably won’t have to watch closely, as both Sam and Sméagol seem to notice it. Frodo is smart enough and dedicated enough that he doesn’t just want to charge headlong into Mordor only to lose the ring of power to Sauron himself, and does everything he can to be sure he’s making the most of Sméagol’s knowledge and Gandalf’s guidance and his own intuition. As opposed to the very animated and expressive inner struggles between Gollum and Sméagol, Frodo’s struggles are mostly represented by blank expressions and staring off into space.
Still, there are some very cool things about the movie. While the Battle of Helm’s Deep is busy being disappointing and massive, there is another battle taking place at Isengard that I did get very excited about. The Black Riders’ new mounts are also very cool, especially when we get to see them very close up. The Oliphants are cool, and I wish I could have seen more of them. Every shot with Gollum of Sméagol in it is very, very cool, and perhaps more convincing than many of the flesh-and-blood characters in the movie. The sequence with Gandalf at the very beginning of the movie is a misleadingly exciting opening to a movie that seemed to move very slowly at times. Overall, I would definitely recommend this movie, though with a warning that it is about war and contains a lot of violence and cruelty and death. You probably already know that if you’ve seen the first movie and/or just about anything about this one on TV, but the warning needs to be there.
Oh and a warning that the meek attempt at romance was either inherently slow and boring and unbelievable and re-hashing things that were overcovered in the first movie and totally out-of-timeline, or there is something about Liv Tyler that puts me off. The vague impression of interest/attraction that Aragorn and Éowyn share is more interesting, believable, and compelling. The elves in this movie (and I don’t just mean Liv Tyler) prove little more than a distraction, which is disappointing, since there can be so much more to them.
Is that enough? Too much? A few comments, I said. Imagine if I was trying to do a proper review or a full-sized report on the film. Here’s hoping I have even more to say (and all of it praises) for the third volume.