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Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Film review, Reverse Shot - Summer 2004
Dir. Sam Raimi, US, Columbia

Watching a great tennis match can be exhilarating but we don’t call it an artistic masterpiece: why then should we treat The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King any differently? King could be the most exhilarating movie of the year; it’s definitely the best reviewed—but why? Because it’s an action movie with high art accoutrements, Jurassic Park adorned with Merchant-Ivory (British accents as great filmmaking) and Braveheart (another film that confuses a period war, swords, and adrenaline with aesthetics). The confusion is embarrassing: I’m already blushing about what posterity will think of this silly faux-Wagnerian pastiche of porcupine-tusked elephants, glam rock haircuts, and aquamarine contacts. I’m seeing some 2050 teen watching the trilogy for her film class and coming upon Aragorn imploring us to defend “the West” against some Moors—and thinking how charmingly naive the folks of 2003 must have been!

Alan Moore once said that Spider-Man creator Stan Lee expanded superheroes from one-word people (Superman; Batman) to one-sentence people (a New York teenager who fights crime to escape his nerdy life). The heroes and villains of Rings (are there any other characters?) are only one-sentence people: if this makes them smaller than life, it makes them larger than humans—as large as archetypes. Yet when we read other wonderfully one-dimensional characters in literature (say, from Homer or the Bible), our imagination inflates them from words to reality. Film, a more literal medium, pins characters down to their descriptions. Rings’s fill-in-the-blanks characterizations thus have to convince us each time for the first time.

You can filter Rings’s propaganda from its emotions by asking: what would this scene be like if I were really there? This is the decontextualizing question; a way of reminding yourself that the characters within the movie aren’t hearing the same oppressively swelling soundtrack that we’re hearing—even though they often act as though they are. Some films answer this question by poeticizing realism (Throne of Blood, Kwaidan), through irony and humaneness (Star Wars, Chinese Ghost Story), or by just giving up believability (Charlie’s Angels, Wong Jing’s wackier films). Lacking irony or the idiosyncrasy of poetry, Rings can survive the question only once: Frodo and Gollum’s catfight at Mount Doom. This lame scrabble could have been Shakespearian and cynical: it could have unmasked the war’s ultimate and petty core as only two idiots groping pathetically over a piece of jewelry. Instead, we get Disney.

The Lord of the Rings’s chief defect is that it’s too glorious—it is the Albert Speer of contemporary cinema. Its apotheosis is doubly dangerous: first, by letting mere quantity (“scope”) be enough for art; secondly, by signaling the end of film: this is the first Playstation commercial to have been called the greatest film of all time.


All content, unless otherwise noted, (c) Ken Chen, 1998-2006. Ken Chen can be reached by email.

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