REVIEW REVISITED: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

This is a reprint of my review first published on Three Men on a Blog in December 2010, with a number of minor revisions. You can read my original review here.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Zealand/ USA, 2001)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler

IMDb Top 250: #11 (29/1/18)

When New Line Cinema first offered a relatively unknown director a budget of $285m, to make a trilogy of films from a source that was deemed un-filmable, you could have been forgiven for assuming we would have another Heaven's Gate on our hands. Likewise, as more and more big-screen imitations have turned up and fallen short - including to some extent The Hobbit trilogy - it is easy to be cynical about The Lord of the Rings because of the legacy it has left behind. But as is so often the way with these things, it only takes a quick revisit of the trilogy for all fears to be laid to rest and for all the magic to once again take hold.
Even if the other instalments of this trilogy had never seen the light of day, The Fellowship of the Ring remains a masterpiece in its own right, an epic with substance and emotional power which rewrote the rulebook for fantasy filmmaking. Considering the enormity of the project and the ambitious scope of J. R.R. Tolkien's novel, it is something of a miracle that it was even made at all. But what is a bigger miracle is that a film this long, with this many characters and this much plot to introduce, should be so flawlessly executed that it holds up even after 40 or 50 viewings.
Part of what makes the film so magical is the sheer level of craftsmanship and attention to detail, both in the visual representation of Middle Earth and the deeply affectionate treatment of Tolkien's story. Before even the prologue has finished you are utterly convinced not only that Peter Jackson was the right choice to direct, but that every effort has been expended to do justice to the material. There are no dodgy special effects, no props which have been built down to a price, and no locations which feel like the real world is being frantically kept off screen.
When designing the film, Jackson and WETA's Richard Taylor sought to create a world and series of cultures which would expand "beyond the four corners of the screen." Everything about the film, from the hair on the hobbits' feet to the grandest building, feels completely bespoke, and in being so detailed the smallest object like a belt or a sword can come to embody and define an entire culture. Because of this level of detail, you never have that awful experience of recognising a prop or set piece. You won't find the tankards in The Prancing Pony hiding in the back of your cupboards, and the woodland communities are not simply jumped-up versions of Endor from Return of the Jedi.
But although the world of Middle Earth is rich with its own cultures, this is balanced out by a desire to be realistic in the film's depiction of characters and situations. The battle scenes may be fantasy violence, but the violence is structured realistically and logically. You don't always need to show blood to understand that people are getting hurt, and unlike the Star Wars prequels we don't end up with fights which defy the laws of physics because of an over-indulgence in CGI. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a mythic pre-history, as something that could have existed in a forgotten dark age. And that same spirit has been replicated here: we believe enough in the mechanics of the world to accept it, but there is also plenty of magic in which to lose oneself.
Fellowship is the gentlest film in the trilogy, with more focus in its first hour on Hobbiton and setting up the idyll of the Shire. On the surface this would seem like the easy part of the whole project, since it doesn't involves epic battles with a cast of thousands or scenes of enduring physical pain. In fact, this is the part of the trilogy that Jackson simply had to get right. These scenes have to demonstrate not just the idyllic and sheltered lives of hobbits, but the pure and harmonious way of life which Frodo undertakes his quest in order to preserve. And they succeed wholeheartedly, making us feel part of this community, at home with its customs and laid-back means of existence. Hence when the first elements of darkness creep in with the arrival of the Ringwraiths, we are every bit as terrified as the hobbits or inhabitants of Bree. Likewise, the first glimpse in the extended edition of the elves heading to the Grey Havens leaves us with exactly the sense of wonder which the scene demands.
Even though it is the gentlest in the trilogy, the film has real darkness and builds the creeping sense of horror extremely well. In the first encounter with the Ringwraith, we see insects crawling away from the tree under which the hobbits are hiding, like the whole of creation is repulsed or terrified by the very presence of this fallen king. The scenes in Moria are deeply claustrophobic; even before the orcs and goblins turn up you feel like you are walking through the bowels of hell, on a thin path of light between two immerse darknesses. The Balrog and the Uruk-hai are terrifying, the former especially since its presence is subtly suggested through the evocative use of red light, and when revealed it is every bit as monstrous as one would have hoped.
What is really striking about The Lord of the Rings, and Fellowship especially, is how this progression of increasing darkness is counterpointed by humour. Though this aspect is less prominent in the books, it makes sense for there to be some form of comic relief amidst the gathering gloom and destruction of human souls. Jackson comes from a background in horror comedy, having made his name in the 'splatstick' horror of Bad Taste and Brain Dead. There are clear hints of this macabre humour in the battle scenes, and the comic interplay between Merry and Pippin as is much comic relief as a naïve, absurdist reaction to the strange, dark worlds ahead of them.
Tolkien likened the ring to a machine: something which is cold, clinical, calculating and by its very nature heartless. Tolkien was not a Luddite, but he was aware of the way in which technology could be used to eradicate human will. One of the delicious ironies of the story is that the enemy is both a distant concept (like 'technology') and something which must be carried with them (like a sword) - it is at once a sentient character which tempts the others and a vessel into which men pour all their existing desires. Characters are seduced by the concept or potential of the ring - Boromir believes it will help his people and save his country. But what is designed to bring victory can just as swiftly bring defeat, and just as men die upon their own swords, so the ring will destroy all who carry it.
Much of Fellowship examines the rise of industry and man's relationship with nature. The elves, who have a harmonious relationship with nature, are in the autumn of their years and are beginning to leave Middle Earth. The orcs and Uruk-hai, meanwhile, represent the march of progress, technology and modernity, exploiting and trampling on nature in the name of power. Saruman's decision to tear down his trees and replace them with machines is a symbol of civilisation advancing at the expense of the natural order, which creates competition for resources and causes humanity to turn on itself. While Sauron creates a pure, almost Aryan race in the Uruk-hai, mankind stands on a knife-edge, unsure of which direction in which they should proceed.
The film also has a breathtaking soundtrack, which contains some of Howard Shore's very best work. Because The Lord of the Rings is a deeply emotional story about worlds colliding and civilisations collapsing, it is necessary for the score to be prominent and for it to embody and encapsulate the different cultures. In this case, it fits so perfectly that you can't believe that the actors weren't mapping out their movements to it. From the tender scene between Aragorn and Arwen to the drums matching the Uruk-hai's tempo through the woods, the music never misses a beat and succeeds where so many melodramas fail, matching emotion to music without compromising the performances.
The Fellowship of the Ring is a barnstorming masterpiece, which balances its multiple stories effortlessly. Although it has an easier job than its brothers in this respect, you never feel as though characters are being ignored or getting left behind, and every performance in the ensemble has depth and conviction. The film is visually spectacular, from the ethereal beauty of Lothlorien to the gloomy depths of Moria. Its set-pieces are as intimate and thrilling as its romantic scenes, and Jackson's direction is flawless. It is the perfect start to a perfect trilogy.

NEXT REVIEW: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)