A lot can happen in 25 years, and in the high-flying, high-budgeted realm of action moviemaking, a lot has. So much, in fact, that the seminal movie of a generation, "Star Wars," really does seem like it came out a long, long time ago, from a galaxy far, far away. Yet the 1977 icon, still one of the top 10 earning films ever, continues to be revered by its fans as one of the all-time greats.
Enter Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," hyped as the "Star Wars" for a new generation, complete with two more films in the can and action figures already on the racks. The movie's rocket start at the box office -- $205 million after 19 days and more than $350 million worldwide -- is fueled by a massive fan base for J.R.R. Tolkien's 20th century "Lord of the Rings" books. The numbers coincide with critical acclaim: The CGI-loaded fantasy is everything that makes a contemporary Hollywood action film notable. It has an epic story, it's visually stunning and it has a transporting imagination behind it that gives the action life. The first installment of the three-part series remains faithful to the spirit of Tolkien's novel. By and large, even the fanatics seem pleased.
"LOTR" and "Star Wars" share a long list of structural and thematic similarities. They're both mythical creature fantasies hellbent on rescuing good from the clutches of evil. Both feature circumstantial heroes who make Oz-like journeys and come of age in the process.
There are also dozens of superficial similarities. Both movies feature mentors who duel bad guys atop narrow passageways, as well as secondary villains -- Darth Vader and Saruman the White, both deserters to the dark side, both fond of telekinetic violence -- who provide the more visible nemesis. Along the way, both heroes encounter women in white gowns, cynical older-brother types, sidekicks playing for laughs and faceless cannon fodder (Storm Troopers and orcs). Both make use of mystical languages, mystical spiritual beliefs and pivotal scenes in bars and in watery mucky-mucks (compare the swamp at the gates of Moria with the garbage chute in the Death Star).
And both have monstrous, devoted followings. Even beyond the genre they share, these likenesses are hardly coincidence. George Lucas' campy space western, made with $11 million, borrowed as liberally from Tolkien's fantastic world as it did from Buck Rogers, the knights of the Round Table, Saturday afternoon cliffhangers, the "Wizard of Oz," images of World War II dogfight combat, fairy tales and classic myth. At the same time, by beating "LOTR" to the screen, "Star Wars," along with music videos, arcade games, "Star Trek," Bruce Lee and legions of kung fu movies, "Alien/Aliens," "Jurassic Park," "Braveheart," "Sleepy Hollow" and "Gladiator," contributes to the inevitable been-there, done-that aspect of Jackson's oeuvre.
Commercially, "LOTR" may not best the $925 million raked in by "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," the No. 2 earner of all time. But with high-flying effects technology and generations of book fans, "LOTR" could top sixth-ranked "Star Wars," which grossed $461 million domestically and $798 million worldwide, and has just been surpassed by "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
Of course all these stats and dollar figures only tell one side of the story -- and it's a less compelling tale. Box office receipts are merely votes in a popularity contest, and the fact that drivel like "Independence Day" outgrosses the original "Star Wars" may not prove anything at all. A movie's ability to entertain, engage or enlighten us, and its significance to the culture at large, aren't things we can judge until after we've bought the ticket and contributed to the box office figures. And those figures can't help us assess what's in our hearts: Does "Lord of the Rings" hold up against "Star Wars?" Which is the better film, and why?
Far simpler than Tolkien's intricately crafted Middle-earth, the universe of "Star Wars" is more similar to our own. Fittingly, "Star Wars" is the more human of the two movies, infusing each major character with thematic clarity befitting flesh-and-blood action heroes. Recall Luke Skywalker's impatient dreamer, Obi-Wan Kenobi's involved and steady-handed mentor, Leia's spunky rebel princess, Han Solo's self-serving cynic, and remember that all four undergo individual transformation: Luke learns to use the Force, Obi-Wan sacrifices himself for the rebel cause, Leia thaws and Han learns to care about others. Lucas even delineates the Laurel-and-Hardy-esque droids: C3PO as the talkative killjoy, R2D2 the headstrong one, with a child's prankster sensibility. Undoubtedly, the dynamism of Lucas' pop icons have formed many a case study for Scriptwriting 101.
Accordingly, the "Star Wars" universe is merely a setting for what is ultimately a highly compelling, if not entirely original, story. "Star Wars" makes use of technical-sounding jargon to give itself a sci-fi feel, but it's clear at all times that any vernacular is subordinate to the needs of pure entertainment: plot, character, story arc, dramatic tension. For example, Luke's Uncle Owen bickers about the capabilities of various droids, but the point is not to flaunt nonsensical vernacular but rather to illuminate the humor in the haggling rug-merchant tactics of a pushy little Jawa.
Indeed, humor runs throughout "Star Wars," whose adventure-tale earnestness nevertheless refuses to take itself too seriously, squeezing jokes out of every "uh-oh" moment. When Luke and Leia nearly run headlong into the Death Star's gaping cavity, the moment isn't simply glossed over: It's acknowledged by Luke's understatement ("I think we took a wrong turn"), and Mark Hamill's subtle gift for physical comedy. And in truly brilliant moments of character-driven funniness, Han Solo -- hard-bitten space swashbuckler with a gooey, "aw, shucks" middle -- shoots everything he finds threatening: his would-be bounty hunter ("sorry for the mess"), the creature in the garbage chute, the Death Star control panel.
"Star Wars" is only a movie, and it never loses sight of that. It doesn't aim higher, and doesn't have to. As a result, "Star Wars" refrains from pretending its heroes are anything other than flawed humans -- and we love them for it. And yet, Lucas' movie doesn't shy away from displaying the gritty reality of human struggle: In a throwaway reference to the inferiority of droids ("We don't serve their kind here"), Lucas allows dribbles of nasty things like prejudice to seep into his world. Nor does being on the same side guarantee people will get along: Darth Vader comes close to strangling a few generals, and as for Luke, his rivalry with Han is the kind you'd expect from the idealistic kid brother.
Incurably down-to-earth, "Star Wars" gives a guided tour of evil's consequences, with a tailor-made John Williams score. Good guys do die: The very first scene sees all rebel fighters killed close-up. Then, in one chillingly evocative stroke, Vader obliterates Alderaan, Leia's home planet, into a hailstorm of rocks and dust. Both acts help define a real evil, make it more tangible.
And the movie does something not often seen in contemporary action movies: It shows restraint. There are no slow-motion shots. Instead, Lucas, who grew up on pulpy cliffhangers, makes clever use of suspenseful cutting that defers to the audience's imagination. Nothing is shown of what that floating ball of truth serum does to Leia, exactly, and there is a pregnant pause after the Sand Person raises his spiked baseball bat high over a fallen Luke, before you see he's fainted.
In "Star Wars," humanity is the point. In "LOTR," with fans and followers in the tens of millions, Tolkien's world is the point. And clearly, this emphasis on alternate worlds is better equipped to feed today's appetite for sheer spectacle (see a long list of cinematic disposables, starting not least with "The Phantom Menace").
Fanatics in any realm are difficult to satisfy, but Tolkien's are the type who engage in prolonged, heated debate over authenticity, all the way down to the technical accuracy of props. (An unauthorized photograph of a spiked wheel taken on set created a global rift among faithful readers before the film came out.) Just in making the movie, Jackson shouldered enormous challenges safeguarding it against similar nitpicking.
So meticulous is Tolkien's Middle-earth, with its genealogy charts and linguistic consistency, and so loyal Jackson and his crew to its detail, "LOTR" becomes a sort of glorified video trivia game, with dense graphics and a relentless pace.
But there's a price for detail. For one thing, "LOTR's" characters are uneven. Take Gandalf. One moment he's a reassuring wizard, the next he's shoving the young hobbit Frodo squarely out Bag End's plump little door with nothing but a tense, hasty goodbye. Strider, one of the two men in the fellowship, is drawn with equivalent blotchiness: This gentle figure of incorruptible royalty makes his entrance on the screen as a noisome, pushy bully. You could make the case that his introduction allows a Prince Hal-like transformation, but at Jackson's rushed pace it plays more like a quick suspense device that cheapens the character.
That kind of horse-trading is the movie's chief weakness. "LOTR's" characters are to its plot as rapids are to a raft: They move the story along. Everyone knows the next plot point will bring the next visual extravaganza, and the filmmakers seemingly did not have the patience, or the interest, in slowing down the visual progress.
Certainly, as the escape from humanity Tolkien intended, Middle Earth operates by its own rules. But as human entertainment, the film would be meaningless without the emotion that comes from human truth -- the kind of emotion that a couple of Enya songs on the soundtrack cannot deliver. "LOTR" harbors some real emotion, but comparatively speaking it is presumptuous and finite.
As the reluctant hero, the worried, one-dimensional Frodo Baggins comes up short against Luke Skywalker, a young, impatient man with a sense of loyalty that tempers his desire for adventure, and it's not something one can summarily blame on Elijah Wood's wrinkled forehead. At first, Frodo takes the ring just to follow Gandalf's orders. Later, when he meets the council, his offer to carry the ring to Mordor plays at best like a simple act of bravery, or at worst an impulsive decision that runs against his initial reluctance. But having made the offer, not until the very end of the film does he actually stop trying to give the ring away, and even then he seems far from convinced.
As for the other members of the Fellowship, film audiences aren't given enough information for their sense of instant duty to be compelling. Whence comes hobbit buddy Sam Gamgee's unswerving dedication to Frodo? Certainly not from the cowardice he showed under a furious Gandalf (again, this seems like comedy at the expense of character). And the loyalty of the two other undifferentiated hobbit sidekicks seems even more unlikely. Pointing to the book doesn't work: Jackson very clearly wants his movie to stand alone.
Both "Star Wars" and "LOTR" have weird, racist undertones: For example, black is always bad. But superficially, Middle-earth appears to be a haven from discrimination. (Although there are certainly what passes for racial stereotypes, with greedy dwarves and flawed humans and stately, noble elves.) This smacks of pretense: Hobbits are addressed merrily throughout as "Halflings." Likewise, there is little infighting on the same side of the conflict -- everyone seems to know the human warrior Boromir is a potential bad seed (in his Hamlet-esque torture chamber, Sean Bean's ambiguity is beautifully played), but no one confronts him about it, or even keeps him under any sort of special Ring Thief alert.
The insufficient development of emotions and character handicaps the movie's ability to make us laugh. Like Gandalf's fireworks, brief moments of shallow, situational humor dissolve swiftly into the night, subsumed by biblical solemnity: "The time of Elves is over," "The race of men is weak" and "There is evil there that does not sleep." Jackson could have at least tried to elicit laughter from moments of bizarre incongruity: For example, elf queen Galadriel's know-it-all reply to Lord Celeborn when he demanded to know where Gandalf was. But they go untouched. In a moment of direct comparison with "Star Wars," when Frodo and associates stop short of a precipice, the moment passes with neither comment nor the clever wringing of comedy from cliché.
And realism? "LOTR's" odds step straight out of a Hong Kong karate movie. Nine warriors fighting armies of orcs and other unattractive horrors suffer but two casualties, and both die emphatically with deliberation -- with three arrows in his chest, Boromir pulls a great Eveready bunny act -- again, the moment calls for not even a snicker. (Whether attributable to logic or frugality with extras, Lucas dispatched his Storm Troopers in a trickle.) That's not "LOTR's" only suspension of logic: Apparently, when Hobbits turn invisible, you can hear their footsteps on concrete but not through dry foliage. And it is surprisingly easy to distract a ring wraith from his immortal duty with a piece of food thrown desperately from a makeshift hiding place.
True, some of this depends on what you want from the movies. Standards have changed -- our 21st-century expectations define "show" to mean "show everything." And here, digital tricks stand in for old-fashioned imagination; we see a schlocky image of a talking eye slit rather than visualize our own image of something far more evil.
That image is hardly the only thing getting in the way of the story. "LOTR" is an epic; it's as macrocosmic as "Star Wars" (a fairy tale intimately involved with its good guys) is microcosmic. And the existence of a well-read, well-loved book handicaps "LOTR." The book is a vehicle that allows shortcuts: Although Jackson compacts "The Hobbit" admirably in a few fact-bulging minutes for those who haven't read it, the missing background nevertheless leaves fundamental loopholes. For example, who are these wizards and why do they care? Where does Frodo go when he puts the ring on? How is it that Cate Blanchett can read everyone's mind? And what makes an orc inherently bad, aside from the fact that it's ugly?
Obviously, making a movie out of a novel is not a cut-and-paste operation. Although a flawed film, "The English Patient" proved that the best adaptations are willing to murder characters and subplots as readily as they dismiss the internal wanderings of a novel. The visual translation of a thick volume into mere hours takes merciless loyalty to the new form, at a potential sacrifice to the old. In other words, had Jackson been more generous with his creative machete, he might have rivaled the book with a translation that truly stands on its own, rather than resorting to inevitable reference to the volumed set.
The verdict? "LOTR" isn't a bad movie, but its wide acclaim shows just how much our story standards have declined, even as our visual standards have skyrocketed. Maybe filmmakers could learn an ironic lesson from "Star Wars." Even though that film was a pioneer in both sound and visual technology, its relative restraint, compared with today's Hollywood offerings, brings to mind the wisdom of an aged Jedi Knight. Today's studios need to "switch off their targeting computers," aka their fancy technology, in order to "feel the force" in moviemaking.
After all, this force requires nothing more than navigation, guided by the instinct of all we collectively know about life.