15 December 2002

Countdown to The Two Towers

You should know first off that although I am a massive film fanatic, I am most emphatically not the sort of person who lines up early at cinemas or breathlessly awaits the opening of a new film. I enjoy watching movies, not being manipulated by the PR departments. Most mainstream films get a solid yawn from me (though I have to admit that the last year or two has given audiences a bumper crop of decent mainstream films compared to the last decade).

That said, I am in fact rather keen to see the next Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers. I've avoided most reviews and websites known to spoil (even though I've read the book), and I will likely go to a "sneak preview" of the film on Tuesday midnight. I can't recall the last time I so eagerly anticipated the release of a mainstream, big-budget film, though it was probably for The Empire Strikes Back.

Just from the trailers at Apple's web site, I'm assured that the same energy, attention to detail and clear love is present in the second film -- and it looks like the sense of scale, of epic, of vastness has been preserved as well. What's remarkable about the first film is that it hits what I think is exactly the right balance between "look at our wonderful scenery and sfx, so beautifully photographed" and "enjoy our wonderful characters and set-pieces." Few films get that right (the second Harry Potter movie certainly didn't), but again this is one mega-mainstream Hollywood epic that clearly has one man's obsessive love written all over it, and that has made all the difference. Would that George Lucas could feel that way about his franchise anymore.

It's almost silly to say "I'll let you know my opinion of the film after I see it," since I am clearly going in prepared to love it, and there is every indication that it won't let me down in the slightest. Only if something is incredibly badly handled will I bother mentioning it here.

Before I take leave of this topic, though, I have to pass along the best laugh I've gotten related to the film: Phillip French, movie critic of The Observer (UK) dashed off what I think is the best comment on the film in his review -- he calls the film "Look Who's Tolkien Too." He also comments on the fact that the new film does not contain much (hardly anything) in the way of reprises for those foolish enough not to have at least seen the first film.

For me personally, I think this is a plus on several levels. I doubt the absence of a summing-up will confuse newcomers too badly -- they will enjoy it on the level of a sword-buckling, fantasy quest story (particularly this film, as the book on which it is based is probably the most action-packed of the three), and then later they can dig deeper and get the other layers too. Of course the lack of a reprise also enables the film to avoid going over the three-hour mark, which is considered pushing it in today's attention-challenged world. It's sad that we as a society find it hard to actually shut off our fucking cell phones for three lousy hours these days, isn't it?? Pathetic, I call it.

Finally, think people in general and critics in particular tend to badly over-estimate the need for full explanations to "set up" a film or story. I didn't watch Doctor Who from the first episode forward in chronological order, yet I have absorbed it by osmosis over the years. You don't need to see Star Wars in any particular order either -- indeed audiences in the future may well watch it in numerical order rather than chronological order, as Lucas intends. You pick up on the layers of continuity in things like South Park when you see them all, but you don't actually have to watch them in order -- your brain will do the sorting just fine, provided you have any kind of analytical abilities that is. So it might actually be a help, rather than a hindrance, to read the book after the film, or see the second one before the first, or read The Return of the King before The Fellowship of the Ring.

I should also quote another paragraph of French's excellent review:
Setting the second Harry Potter film beside this second Tolkien confirms with even greater clarity the difference detected between the two enterprises when the first movies appeared together a year ago. Though both are eclectic in their mythic and literary sources, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is to The Two Towers what glossy pantomime versions of Robinson Crusoe and Aladdin are to the Daniel Defoe novel and the Arabian Nights stories. These Tolkien films have a weight and seriousness that very few sword-and-sorcery pictures of the past 30-odd years have attained.

I will refrain from quoting his brilliant final paragraph and instead encourage any of you who have interest to read it yourselves. Suffice to say his sentiments ring true and are exceedingly well-expressed.

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