Dazzling, Sure — But to What Effect?

Los Angeles Times, Sunday, April 4, 2004. Different edits also appeared in the New Zealand Herald, The Press, and The Australian. The article below represents the complete text from which all of these versions were derived.

Denis Dutton


Here in New Zealand, Peter Jackson is the man of the moment. His managerial capacities and showman’s instincts have allowed him, as we like to think of it, to beat Hollywood’s hotshots at their own game. He has given hundreds of inventive New Zealanders worthwhile, lucrative work, and enhanced our tourist industry into the bargain.

Personally, I think the New Zealand government should bring back knighthoods just to give him one. So when I add that the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is, as a work of cinematic art, ham-fisted, shallow, bombastic, and laughably overrated, don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking Jackson and his hard-working team. The larger issue is Hollywood and the degraded state of big-budget movies.

Jackson’s Lord of the Rings represents the victory of special effects over dramatic art. Of course, special effects have been with cinema since the beginning. Georges Méliès’s droll 1902 A Trip to the Moon, the first sci-fi movie, contained enchanting trick photography. Audiences were astonished by the 1932 King Kong (a stop-action model) and gawked at the dinosaurs (live lizards) that Victor Mature battled in the 1940 One Million BC. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey showed that special-effects models can be beautiful, and computer-generated effects entered film in a big way with Jurassic Park, Titanic, and The Matrix.

The sense of amazement special effects can induce tends to be short-lived. Filmgoers grow tired of kinds of effect, and then want more. The space travel shots of Stars Wars now seem trite, and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, particularly in the final sequences of that movie, look creaky and artificial.

Audience habituation means that effects-wizards are locked in the upward spiral of an endless special-effects arms race, with demands for bigger explosions, uglier villains, more frenzied, realistic violence, ear-splitting noises, and ever-expanding battle scenes. A computer-generated crowd, according to the rule, must not be smaller than the crowds in last month’s blockbusters.

The Rings trilogy is a case in point. Take away the frenetic effects from this unremarkable action-adventure fantasy, and there is not enough on screen to keep even a subnormal human mind alive. The narrative drags for long stretches in part from the decision, applauded by Tolkien obsessives, to follow the books so closely, rather than construct a dramatically integrated trilogy (or single film) that could stand on its own. Special effects are these films’ raison d’être.

Acting? Elijah Wood plays Frodo with a repertoire of two wide-eyed expressions: his shocked-happy face and his shocked-hurt face. Women, as we’d expect from a geek epic, are merely an annoyance. As Clive James remarked, Middle-earth is “a place where even Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler come to be boring.”

But the good stout men of this movie are not much better, strutting around sententiously as they intone Tolkien’s pseudo-Shakespearean inversions (“This way lies danger,” etc.). Their occasional meditative soliloquies may be Tolkien’s words, but they end up sounding like Hallmark cards: “You can’t go back. Some wounds don’t heal.” (This in a movie where people fall off wind-swept cliffs or down bottomless pits, always to return in the pink of good health.)

Not even the super-ugly Orcs, with their cruel laughter and bad teeth, engage much interest, as they fail to suggest a compelling sense of evil. The computer can replicate them by the zillions, but so what?

Next month we’ll get yet another remake of Homer’s Iliad. Being Homer, and not J.R.R. Tolkien, Troy could conceivably have convincing women to set off against Brad Pitt as Achilles. Don’t get your hopes up for that, but do expect the computer-generated bone-crunching, flesh-slicing battle scenes to exceed in quantity of pixel-soldiers and pints of fake blood those in either Gladiator or Jackson’s Rings. That’s what the special-effects arms race is all about. And that’s why the upward spiral of special effects has yielded a downward spiral in the story-telling quality of big-budget movies.

Talking about the theatre of his own time, Aristotle listed the elements that go into a good drama. The least important, he argued, was “spectacle” — the staging, fancy costumes, and special stage effects (such as the deus ex machina) the Greeks used in their theatres. Most crucial for intense dramatic experience was an effective plot and interesting characters. Except for the technology escalation, not much has changed in 2500 years. Ignore Aristotle’s advice, push spectacle to the top of the list, and you end up with such over-computerized, incoherent drivel as the recent versions of The Hulk or Charlie’s Angels.

Time was when celluloid images captured in the initial shoot formed the basic, intractable material from which a film editor worked. Today, the “post-production” phase of film making is misnamed: without editing constraints, production is a continuous process. Borrowing from the pumped-up visual rhetoric of TV commercials and video games, editors now recolor images, alter motion, add or delete whole objects, including characters, from scenes.

This has enabled a move toward exaggeration and cartoonish intensification of persons, animals, objects, and actions wherever possible. Thus in Pirates of the Caribbean, the pirate ship is required to be portrayed as the blackest, most humungous ship ever seen. Sword fights must be tweaked so sparks and flashes accompany the clanging of blades. A treasure in a cave is not a chest of coins, but an underground mountain of gold and jewels, and so forth. The computer, which had offered directors and editors creative freedom, has ended up by serving juvenile fantasy to audiences.

Films promise so much. Yet what have they delivered? Between 1939 and 1942, barely a decade after the advent of sound, Hollywood could produce Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, His Girl Friday, Casablanca, Fantasia, and The Maltese Falcon. Ask yourself, how much better have movies gotten since then?

The Wizard of Oz, like the Rings, is a fantasy-adventure plotted around a quest. It has Munchkins for its Hobbits, flying monkeys for its Orcs, a malevolent witch who lives in a castle, and even humanoid trees. Although the tornado is still a tour de force, its 1939 special-effects are not there to astonish so much as to push the action along. The Wizard of Oz possesses an eternal freshness, its witty, beautifully-paced tale told with singing and dancing actors of phenomenal talent: Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr. Who can remember anything out of Howard Shore’s vapid, overblown score for Lord of the Rings? Who can forget Harold Arlen’s for The Wizard of Oz?

Add it all up — acting talent, script, pacing, humor — and you have in The Wizard of Oz an essential feature completely missing in Lord of the Rings: charm. Most importantly, the 1939 film presents the audience with the vulnerabilities and idiosyncratic interior lives of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. They are as much fantasy characters as any elf out of Tolkien, but they are at the same time deeply human personalities. Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West expresses a sense of authentic menace that Jackson’s flaming, computer-generated evil-eye cannot match. Among the Rings characters, only Gollum comes near to having an intriguing internal life.

Like so much of today’s effects-driven cinema, Jackson’s trilogy is charmlessly external: nine hours and eleven minutes of wearisome narrative, relieved only by stunning scenes of New Zealand’s natural landscape and episodes of slam-bang hyper-violence. Yes, there are some diverting moments: I’d single out the oliphaunts and the mountaintop fire signals in the last installment. But of development by arresting characters, there is none whatsoever.

Nor does the plot, if you can call it that, provide any real suspense. I have never looked at my watch as often during a movie as in The Return of the King. Toward the end, I found myself desperately cheering on the giant spider in hope getting home early. Eat Frodo! Eat him!

Peter Jackson’s natural affinity, by the way, is for gothic horror, and along with that spider, the submerged corpses of the Dead Marshes in the second film and the foray into the underworld in the third are among the more effective episodes in these movies. King Kong, which Jackson is working on now, is, however, neither a horror story nor a blow-’em-away special-effects vehicle. There is a pathos in King Kong’s beauty-and-beast tale which is beyond the standard-issue geek imagination.

If the obsession with expensive technology and shallow effects is to ruin Hollywood film as an art form, by all means let the deed be carried out with the help of talented New Zealanders. The visual effects, costumes, and make-up Oscars for The Lord of the Rings are richly deserved. But beyond that, are these movies, or any of the over-technologized films of our epoch, of any lasting value? Let’s get a grip.


Professor Dutton teaches the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. His parents met when they both worked at Paramount Studios. He grew up in North Hollywood, California.