I've been reminded of Titanic several times over the last few years while picking up stories here and there about the production of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. One factoid in particular gave me a lot of hope that The Fellowship of the Ring was going to kick butt. At first I was frightened to hear that the three films would be produced for a budget of about 100 million dollars total. Maybe this is typical of the notoriously mysterious accounting practices of the film industry, but before too long, the budget was reportedly up to 50, 70 and finally a hundred million plus per flick.
I also read somewhere that in the last days of the creation of Titanic (with director James Cameron way, WAY over budget) a rough cut was previewed for some bloodless-turnip executives-types who were so impressed with what they saw, they authorized more cash to add frosty digital breath expelling from lifeboat survivors—one of many expensive details that made Titanic believable.
Similarly, I'm betting that some early dailies were previewed by the thirteen purse-string holding producers (thirteen producers!) of LOTR. So when the reported budget started going up, up, up, my expectations began to do the same thing. Bloodless-turnip executive types may not know crap about art, but they do know enough to exploit a good thing when they see it. And they know you've got to spend money to make money.
I was also thrilled to discover Steven Spielberg would not be anywhere within a 1,000 mile radius of New Zealand during filming (there is no room in Middle Earth for treacley new-age sentiment) and Chris Columbus would be busy soullessly translating "Harry Potter" word for word to the screen. Randomly, it seemed, director Peter Jackson was chosen to give up 4 years (or so) of his life to realize Tolkien's fantasy masterpiece.
My only other exposure to Jackson's work was the film Heavenly Creatures which introduced American audiences to Titanic star Kate Winslet. This movie is so simultaneously bizarre and realistic, takes so many risks, and pays off with such emotional impact that I was sure Jackson would either slam dunk the LOTR series or never work as a director again. If he suffered the latter fate, it would be because his vision was misunderstood, not because it sucked. He is truly an artist.
I'm glad to report that Fellowship of the Ring indicates a slam-dunk in progress. After three hours in the front row of the theatre, I was ready to turn around and watch the movie again.
A quick plot synopsis for those who live outside the known universe: In a fantastical time before human history, an all-powerful (all-corrupting) ring is sought by a dark lord and his minions. The epic responsibility for transporting the ring to it's final fate falls to an innocent halfling, the hobbit Frodo.
The detail surrounding this plot fills three books and will easily fill nine hours on-screen. This first film is rich with it, but moves at a scorching pace. Relentless action, suspense, and magical grandeur almost overwhelm, but suddenly you'll be tearing up or laughing at some profoundly emotional moment.
Even in the midst of so much eye-candy, the characters are wonderfully real. Elijah Wood (Frodo) is perhaps the greatest young actor working today. He can bring tears to my eyes with a single look, and I'm talking about his work in Flipper. The bad-ass thespian Ian McKellen somehow makes the wizard Gandalf terrible, loveable, and human simultaneously. I didn't even recognize John Rhys-Davies—he becomes his character so completely. Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn is about to be propelled into the superstardom that has unfairly eluded him for so long. He is strong, sensitive and sexy, just as a king should be. Really, everyone kicks ass in this movie. Even Liv Tyler.
If, like me, you resisted the popularity of the books (I read the trilogy for the first time this year) and are dubious about all things Dungeons & Dragons-esque, you may want to consider caving in and seeing this movie. The countless clichés that typify the fantasy genre were born from this work. But there is a good reason why so much crap was spawned from Tolkien's tale of Middle Earth—it was compelling and original, and Jackson has brought this vision to life with love, skill and his own brand of originality. Everything old is new again.