June 01, 2004

What George Lucas Could Learn from Peter Jackson

One of these days, when I have just a little more time, I plan to write an enormous blog entry detailing my assessment of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I've already spent some time working on it, in fact: I bought the DVD of The Return of the King last Wednesday, and I've spent a handful of my spare moments since then watching the movie and jotting down my thoughts.

If there's one thing that regular readers of this blog know, however, it's that I'm a Tolkien addict--and that sometimes my thoughts on movies expand far beyond my audience's willingness to read them. I've decided, therefore, to begin my musings on Jackson's Lord of the Rings with a short initial entry, in which I'll discuss the lessons that George Lucas should take from Jackson's work. For now this entry will be a preview of the full review I'm working on, and when my main commentary is done, this post will be a sidebar to my primary argument.

As most of you probably know, I'm a huge fan of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy--even though I think that he sometimes moves too far away from both the text and the spirit of the books . I'm willing to accept the movies as Peter Jackson's look at Middle Earth, however, since I love the way he brought Tolkien's books to life. In Jackson's hands, the movie is more than a fantasy film or a summer special-effects blockbuster: as my main review will argue, it also combines elements of the sweeping David Lean-style epic, the realistic war movie, the schlocky horror film, the tension-driven thriller, and the classic Hollywood swashbuckler.

Where does the swashbuckling come in? Consider these scenes from The Two Towers and The Return of the King:

  • During the battle of Helm's Deep, as Saruman's Uruk-Hai attempt to break down the main gate to the keep, Theoden turns to Aragorn for help. Aragorn and Gimli then leave the keep through a hidden side door, leap to the main causeway, and singlehandedly fight off dozens of orcs, before grabbing a rope and being whisked off to safety. (Dramatic music plays throughout.) The characters' speech is both heroic and humorous (Gimli even repeats an atrocious dwarf-tossing joke), and their actions have a physical swagger that doesn't appear very often in the movies these days.
  • Soon after the armies of Rohan attack the forces of Mordor on the Pelennor Fields, the action shifts to the river and we witness the arrival of the black corsairs' ships. An orc captain recognizes the ships as belonging to Mordor's allies and whines that they've arrived too late, only to see Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas leap to shore and stride nonchalantly toward a legion of orcs. Gimli mutters an arrogant joke about how many orcs he'll kill, and then the army of the dead sweeps past to join the battle. (Again, the mood is set by dramatic music.)
  • Soon afterward, Legolas singlehandedly kills an oliphaunt and all the Haradrim on its back--slaughtering at least 15 soldiers in just a few minutes; he does so, moreover, with a zen-like nonchalance.

Jackson, it seems, loves to switch between film styles. Some of his battle scenes are starkly realistic: I doubt that any mainstream film-maker would have portrayed the fight with the cave troll in Moria in such an unheroic light before Steven Spielberg brought us Saving Private Ryan, for instance. (There's no dramatic music, and the fighting comes across as both confusing and real.) But other Jackson fight scenes come across as swashbuckling entertainment: at times Viggo Mortensen seems more like Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks than like a contemporary action hero, as he nonchalantly leaps into the fray with heroic music blaring in the background. I'd even argue that each of the scenes I've mentioned above would fit more comfortably into a good, old-fashioned pirate movie than into most anything Hollywood produced in the 1990s.

You can argue over whether Jackson's swashbuckling is effective: I thought that Legolas's attack on the oliphaunt was a little over-the-top, for instance, and it's debatable whether swashbuckling belongs in the midst of a realistic battle scene. What seems undeniable is that Jackson has achieved exactly the sort of effect that George Lucas is most interested in--and he's done so in the middle of a movie that's far more serious, complex, and multi-faceted than anything Lucas has attempted. If you're not convinced, ask yourself this question: Who's the ideal audience for the second scene I mentioned above? I'd argue that the ideal viewer for this sequence is a nine-year old boy, and that such a viewer would experience exactly the reaction Jackson wanted: first he'd gasp when he thought that a bunch of mercenaries had arrived to help the forces of Mordor, and then he'd heave a massive sigh of relief as Aragorn and company rushed in to help the good guys.

What lesson should George Lucas take from all this? One of my biggest problems with the two Star Wars prequels is that Lucas has almost completely lost his sense of fun; in my more frivolous moments, I've even argued that the most serious flaw in the new Star Wars movies is that almost no one repeats the line "may the force be with you," and when they do, it comes across as a serious mantra rather than a quirky-sounding admonition. In Episode I, Lucas aimed too low, giving his movie an annoyingly juvenile feel. (Witness Jar-Jar Binks and the incompetent Gungans!) In Episode II, far too much of the story was filled with boring talk about politics or with self-important efforts to build up the back-story, and Lucas was more interested in giving his fight scenes a look that would appeal to sci-fi nerds than he was in making the story fun and exciting for nine-year-olds. Lucas says that his goal is to produce the sort of exciting movies that he loved to watch on Saturday afternoons as a kid, but the only scene in the prequels that met this goal was Yoda's fight scene in Attack of the Clones.

This contrast between The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars prequels, I believe, strongly favors Jackson: Jackson injects moments of swashbuckling fun into a movie series that's usually far more realistic and serious, while Lucas casts a dull pallor over a series that's supposed to be light-hearted fun. If only that were the primary flaw in Lucas's work...

There's a second area where I believe that Lucas could learn a lot from Jackson, however, and that area is the use of detail.

In 1983, when Return of the Jedi was released in theaters for the first time, Roger Ebert wrote a delightfully wrong-headed review of the movie. Here's how he began:

Here is just one small moment in Return of the Jedi, a moment you could miss if you looked away from the screen, but a moment that helps explain the special magic of the Star Wars movies. Luke Skywalker is engaged in a ferocious battle in the dungeons beneath the throne room of the loathsome Jabba the Hutt. His adversary is a slimy, gruesome, reptilian monster made of warts and teeth. Things are looking bad when suddenly the monster is crushed beneath a falling door. And then (here is the small moment) there's a shot of the monster's keeper, a muscle-bound jailer, who rushes forward in tears. He is brokenhearted at the destruction of his pet. Everybody loves somebody.

It is that extra level of detail that makes the Star Wars pictures much more than just space operas. Other movies might approach the special effects. Other action pictures might approximate the sense of swashbuckling adventure. But in Return of the Jedi, as in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, there's such a wonderful density to the canvas. Things are happening all over. They're pouring forth from imaginations so fertile that, yes, we do halfway believe in this crazy Galactic Empire long ago and far, far away.

I don't want to suggest that Ebert is completely wrong, of course: Lucas's attention to detail is one of the many factors that helped make the original Star Wars trilogy such a delight. What's more, I love the scene where the rancor's keeper bursts into tears, and I loved it even more when I first saw the movie. (I was six at the time.)

I think Ebert makes a big mistake at the start of his second paragraph, however: is it really true that an "extra level of detail" is what "makes the Star Wars pictures much more than just space operas"? Looking back now, two years after the fifth installment in the series, I think it's fair to say that all the Star Wars movies show an amazing attention to detail. The prequels, however, just don't work particularly well as movies: it's hard to care about the characters, and the basic storyline isn't terribly interesting. Sometimes it seems like Lucas took Ebert's words to heart and decided that if he kept piling lay upon layer of detail into his most recent films, critics and audiences would love them just as much as they loved the originals. Lucas, of course, was wrong.

The key issue, I think, is this: if a movie's audience cares about the characters and the plot, then fun or intriguing details can increase those feelings and make viewers love the movie even more. But if no one cares about what's happening on screen, then an added level of attention and detail won't make a shred of difference.

Jackson, I think, understands this. (His movies' sense of conviction is their strongest point: you really get the sense that Jackson believes in Tolkien's world, and that the characters have a real stake in what's happening. This helps make the audience care, too.) Consider these three scenes from his trilogy:

  • Near the end of The Two Towers, as Sam delivers an inspirational speech to raise Frodo's spirits after his encounter with the Nazgul, Jackson's cameras briefly turn away from the hobbits and the fighting in Osgiliath; they turn, instead, to Gollum, whose face betrays a mournful expression.
  • Near the beginning of The Return of the King, we see a sweeping shot of the inside of the golden hall of Edoras during the victory celebration following Helm's Deep. In the midst of the celebration, we see Merry and Pippin dancing on a table, singing a song about their beloved Green Dragon tavern at home; at one point, one of Merry's enormous feet crashes into one of the Rohirrim who's watching and cheering them on.
  • Near the start of the siege of Gondor, the defenders of Minas Tirith send a boulder catapulting toward the armies of Mordor. It's headed directly toward the leader of the orcs (a figure memorably described by The New Yorker's Anthony Lane as an enormous potato), who leaps out of the way just in time and then spits on the rock with disgust. Just before the orc spits, Jackson turns to a nearby troll and gives us a quick (and charming) view of its surprised reaction.

All of these details add to Jackson's work, but I think that the differences between them are striking. Gollum's reaction to Sam's speech is a great supporting detail; it adds to the speech's emotional heft and tells us something about Gollum's character. The second detail--the one having to do with the dancing hobbits' feet--was also a nice addition to the film, but it was so subtle that I missed it on my first viewing. (I noticed and enjoyed the dancing hobbits, of course--I even think the trilogy would have benefited from more hobbit songs--but I didn't notice just how footloose Merry really was until this weekend.) The final detail (the surprised troll) was the least significant of the three.

What's most crucial about the first two details, however, is that they're supporting details. Gollum's reaction adds to the emotion surrounding Sam's speech--but if you don't like the speech to begin with, Gollum's sad and thoughtful demeanor won't add anything to the film. The unfortunate collision of Merry's feet and an innocent warrior from Rohan, moreover, adds to the jolly atmosphere of the dance. In a sense, it was a detail added to a detail, making the Rohirrim's celebration of their victory more personal and more cinematically effective. The hobbits' dancing would have been a nice touch even without Merry's carelessness, and the victory celebration would have been a good scene even if Merry and Pippin hadn't been there.

In other words, clever or charming details can add a lot to a scene when they add to the mood or help develop a character--but, in and of themselves, they can only do so much. I'm not sure that George Lucas understands this. I think it's great that the first Star Wars prequel featured Wookiees in the Senate, for example, but the scene in which they appeared was still boring, bland, and stilted; the presence of the Wookiees could have been the crowning touch on a more entertaining film sequence, but instead they were lost in the midst of an eminently forgettable Senate debate. Similarly, it was fantastic to see womp rats on Tatooine in Attack of the Clones, but the Tatooine scenes in that movie weren't terribly effective: I get the sense that Lucas wrote those scenes because they were needed for the movie's plot, not because he had something interesting or important to say.

At the same time, a director can get some of the details spectactularly wrong, but if he still understands the big picture, that can be enough to save his work. Once again, Peter Jackson is a case in point. Of all the decisions he made in his trilogy, by far the biggest mistake was the way that he transformed Faramir from a wise and far-seeing Numenorean--the most sympathetic character in the trilogy--into an underwhelming Boromir Lite. This "detail," in fact, is a major plot point, but however much I hate the way Jackson treated Faramir, there were so many fantastic scenes in The Two Towers that I was willing to forgive Jackson his few transgressions.

Turning back to Return of the Jedi, the rancor keeper's tears wouldn't matter to us at all if we didn't care about what was happening: the movie is full of familiar and likeable characters whose fate matters to the audience, and that's why the movie is worth seeing. (In this sense, it's like the surprised troll in Return of the King.) From a technical standpoint, I can't even say that Return of the Jedi is any better than Attack of the Clones, but when the first movie is bad, it's bad in an entertainingly stupid way--and when the second movie is bad, it's just boring. Questions like this make a world of difference.

I could go on, of course: I'd also argue that Jackson's work features a sense of conviction and a sense of wonder that appeared in the first Star Wars movies but were completely lacking in the prequels. I don't want to pick on George Lucas too much, though--and if you want to read more of my thoughts on Peter Jackson, then you'll just have to wait.

Posted by Ed at June 1, 2004 11:15 PM
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