Given the hundreds of films I’ve reviewed, I am absolutely flummoxed that I have never before covered 1998’s IMAX film Everest. To start with, I’m a mountaineering literature junkie. Further, the film stars Ed Viesturs, who is to mountaineering what Aaron Rodgers is to football. And to top it off, it’s pure documentary footage of the most absorbing high-altitude tragedy in the history of mountaineering. What couldn’t have been planned, and what no one expected, was that the IMAX team would be on the mountain during the catastrophic events that claimed the lives of eight climbers from three other expeditions on their summit day.
What was that I was saying about An Unexpected Journey not feeling rushed? About the inclusion of songs, in all their silliness and pomposity? About belly laughs and witty homages? Naw. Peter Jackson opens The Desolation of Smaug with a flash-back sequence of Gandalf’s initial encounter with Thorin at the Prancing Pony in Bree. And as the scene opens, just as with the Bree scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson emerges from the darkness munching on an oversized carrot. That’s a fitting metaphor, methinks.
I have to assume that those who really want to know about the Extended Edition of The Return of the King are already fans of Peter Jackson’s adapted Lord of the Rings. After all, would anyone who dislikes Krispy Kremes be interested in merely a bigger Krispy Kreme? I doubt it. And what makes a Krispy Kreme special, so I have been told, is all in the eye of the consumer, as it were. But wait, you say. The Return of the King is no light-as-air confection. And of course I agree, though not everyone would. Further, I suggest that the Extended Edition is as much a different movie from the theatrical version as was the extended Fellowship—as different as a slice of New York cheesecake is from a Krispy Kreme.
While the extended Fellowship is an epic worthy of being called a classic—taking what was already a fine, effective film and improving it by tweaks and bounds—I did not see much hope for a similar treatment of Towers. While the theatrical Towers proved excellent grist for fanboys, I nonetheless found it tedious at times and oppressive as a whole. Without Jackson’s stunning realization of Gollum, the film would have seemed to me a nearly complete loss. Fortunately for the studio—and the audience—Peter Jackson and crew were at the helm of this effort and not me!
In general, I am not a fan of “director’s cuts,” or extended versions of theatrical releases. With very few exceptions, such as Milos Forman’s Amadeus, the addition of “restored” footage makes little or no impact on the effectiveness of a movie. Peter Jackson’s extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring is one of these rare exceptions. In fact, the additions that Jackson has made—scattered widely across its three-plus hour running time—transform Fellowship from a very good movie into a truly great film.
Conventional wisdom dictates that movie scripts be designed and function in much the same way as a short story; another apt comparison would be the musical form of the overture.
And just as most stories are short in comparison to J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, so are most movies mere overtures in comparison to Peter Jackson’s unprecedented cinematic achievement. A running time of three-plus hours certainly allows a design reminiscent of a symphony’s multiple, distinct movements—even, as in this case, the many “false” endings for which symphonies are often criticized.
Jackson’s filmed version of The Two Towers is not the same story as Tolkien’s. The titular towers are not even the same as those emphasized by Tolkien: Orthanc and Barad-dûr have been substituted for Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith. The framework of Jackson’s story is provided by the Axis of Evil which hems in and ravages Rohan and Gondor; Tolkien’s framework places more emphasis on the battle for right, waged in the shadowlands which form between darkness and light. With a different framework come different details.
Though it’s clear that this is a darker—and scarier—vision of Middle-earth than comes across on the printed page, obviously, the film succeeds as terrific entertainment for adolescents and adults, and will no doubt sate the appetite of Tolkien addicts at least for a few months. Box-office records will fall, and fall mightily. But what about the entire series? Will it become flabby and perfunctory, like the Star Wars series? Or will it actually build momentum, and end with as satisfying a conclusion as the novels?
A Fistful of Old Testament Justice
Make no mistake: there are no Christ figures in Leone’s Westerns. Mercy is as out of place in his landscape as Leone’s dusters. So this truth you will not find in Leone’s vision: God is found not merely in the satisfaction of retribution via human agents; he is also there in the desert, between oases, calling us to sit and dwell in the silence and wait not for an explosion but a still, small voice. As humans, we want justice, and we want it now, served our way. Leone’s films are visions for December 8 or September 12.
It’s super, super tough to say much more about the film without ruining it. But since you’ve demonstrated that you’re either brave, foolish, or just too smart for you own good, go ahead and watch the trailer I include with this commentary… and then, if you’re REALLY intent on spoiling the movie for yourself, read through an exchange that Hollywood director Scott Derrickson and I had on Facebook after he posted his thumbnail review of Breakdown.
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