Welcome to Sci-Fi and Fantasy Wednesdays

As I wrote on Monday, one of my commitments for this year to is to start writing on here on a more frequent, regular basis. Given that I literally write fantasy (in the form of my ongoing series, The Redemption of Erâth), and I have a deep love for all things science-fiction, I thought it might be an idea to start a section on this blog dedicated to discussions of all things sci-fi and fantasy-related! I’ll be putting up a new post each Wednesday with something related to these topics, and we’ll see if it catches on!

To start with some background, I owe my love of sci-fi almost wholly to Gene Roddenberry, growing up as I did on a full-fat diet of Star Trek: The Next Generation (I’m not quite old enough to have experienced the original series as it aired, though I certainly watched plenty of re-runs). I absolutely adored the adventures of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and co. as they traveled the galaxy, exploring new worlds and fighting off Romulans and the Borg. I would re-enact episodes constantly in our back yard, and my very first ever original story was actually Star Trek fan fiction!

As I grew older, I had an uncle who also loved science fiction, and introduced me to some of the harder sci-fi stories out there, including Dune (to this day, remaining one of my favorite science-fiction franchises), and countless other books about aliens, spaceships and intergalactic travel. Oddly enough, Star Wars never really took over too much for me – although I remember the old VHS tapes of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader fondly, Star Trek was always my go-to – perhaps because it handled the ‘science’ portion of sci-fi somewhat more accurately.

I was never as much into fantasy, oddly, as a child; I don’t know if this is because there wasn’t any good fantasy on TV, or if it’s because fantasy tends to deal with the past (or fictional past, anyway) whilst I was always dreaming of the future, but it wasn’t really until Peter Jackson’s magnificent rendition of The Lord of the Rings that fantasy truly came to cross my radar as something not only enjoyable, but absolutely worth my time. I hadn’t even read the books by the time I saw the films, although I have since and enjoyed them immensely (dense as they are).

I think that, in some ways, sci-fi and fantasy are two sides of the same coin, which is perhaps why they are so often thrown together on the bookshelves. I don’t think that they necessarily mix terribly well (I suppose there are some examples, such as A Wrinkle in Time), but both – at their best – deal with human conflict in unimaginable settings. For me, the key distinction is really that sci-fi deals with what might one day be possible, whereas fantasy deals more with what might once have been. Whether it’s stories such as The Chronicles of Narnia, set in entirely alternate universes, or Harry Potter, set in an alternate version of modern-day society, fantasy often uses magic as a way of explaining things that are, to our current understanding, impossible; science fiction uses science to do exactly the same thing. And to many, magic is simply a way of describing that which we don’t yet understand – leaving science fiction to simply be rationalized magic.

Of course, the world in which the stories take place – be it galaxies far, far away or the house next door – must serve as the setting for human-driven tales. In Star Wars, despite the often-unrealistic portrayals of space travel and what essentially amounts to magic in the explanations of ‘the force’, we are really seeing a very human story of emotional manipulation, love, death, triumph and tragedy. In Harry Potter, we see … well, almost exactly the same thing.

For me, the best stories are human ones, and the removal of reality from the setting – whether by setting it in space or in Middle-Earth – in some ways simply allows us to focus more strongly on those human traits, characteristics and conflicts, detaching it from reality and giving us an opportunity to wonder – what would I do, in a similar situation?

What are your favorite sci-fi and fantasy stories, books and films? What makes them so great to you? Is it the setting, or is it the human connection? Let me know in the comments!

Revisiting The Lord of the Rings

It’s hard to think that The Fellowship of the Ring first came out in theaters nearly nineteen years ago. It’s even harder to think of a world in which these masterpieces of cinema didn’t exist, and nobody knew what they were in for before their first-ever watch. It’s particularly difficult to imagine that Peter Jackson et al had the most immense difficulty getting these films green lit, filmed, produced, and realized, in an era where CGI was only just starting to take hold of blockbusters and our only experience of motion capture was Jar Jar Binks.

I want to revisit these films in light of their imminent release in 4K, as I am (like many fans the world over) simply dying to see scenes such as wandering the halls of Moria, or the battle of the Pelanor Fields, in even higher quality than ever before. I’m even more excited for the news that remastered editions are coming next year, but 4K will have to do for now.

Like the best of cinema, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an epic visual feast, from the bright and colorful renditions of the Shire to the overwhelming sight of ten thousand soldiers on horseback running down an even greater number of orcs, and every scene and shot is filled with visual magic – both practical and CGI.

Given that we’re discussing these films in the context of their technological improvement (upscaling, re-rendering, etc.), it’s worth noting that the timing of these films was perhaps a key to their visual success: the burgeoning rise of computer-assisted imagery was vital to Peter Jackson’s vision, yet an enormous number of shots were achieved through much simpler – and much cleverer – practical effects. When comparing these films to later blockbusters – including The Hobbit prequels – it really is the seamless blend of practical and digital effects that allowed this movie to achieve the visual successes that it did. When we see great panning shots around the stone city of Minas Tirith, or witness the breaking of the dam above Isengard, we’re actually watching 100% practical shots, achieved with excessively large miniatures (‘bigatures’, as Jackson’s team would come to call them), enhanced only by the subtle CGI addition of things such as people wandering the streets, or orcs being thrown into cascading rivers.

At the time, audiences were used to CGI being used for very obvious, impossible to visualize effects; think the liquid metal of Terminator 2, or the tracking shot of the bug in the opening to Men In Black. Most other blockbusters of the time – even huge visual-effects-laden hits such as Independence Day – relied primarily on practical effects, sometimes superimposing multiple practical shots with green screen. It was much less common – and at times disastrously obvious – when CGI was used to render entire landscapes, create inhuman characters, or add dazzle to otherwise normal shots.

This means that Jackson was, at the time, at a crossroads of technology; anything was possible with CGI, but it still wasn’t alway the best choice. To create creatures such as Gollum – which, as opposed to Jar Jar Binks, was necessitated by the original source material – Jackson had no choice but to rely on motion capture and an army of digital artists to create his vision. But to create many of the epic landscapes and cities, he relied on something much simpler: the majestic and wildly varied countryside of his native New Zealand. So much of the grandiosity of The Lord of the Rings comes not from CGI, but from the real-life locations in which he chose to film. When we watch Gandalf, on the back of an eagle, soaring high over snow-drenched peaks, we’re watching a small blip of CGI against a completely real world.

In some ways, these are the scenes I’m most looking forward to seeing in 4K: not the crazy, CGI-laden battles of ghosts and oliphants, but the sweeping, majestic landscapes that deserve to be seen in the highest possible quality.

Of course, style is nothing without substance, and whilst there are small moments that detract from the overall interpretation of Tolkien’s original vision (I’m looking at you, Legolas-surfing-down-a-staircase-on-a-shield), the faithfulness of the adaptation, and the clear love Jackson had for the source material, make for one of the most thrilling, and emotional, stories to be put to film. When The Lord of the Rings first came out, many people were concerned at its runtime, and what seemed to be incredibly slow pacing. And arguably, they are a long, slow set of movies; it’s nearly forty minutes into the film before we even leave the Shire, and there’s still half an hour of film to go after the destruction of the One Ring. But this pacing reflects the detail of the film, which in turn reflects the detail of the world-building that Tolkien put so much effort into.

Die-hard purists will complain that the reluctant king trope Aragorn plays in the films is contrary to the original story, or bemoan the loss of Tom Bombadil in the opening chapters, but the other thing Jackson had an uncanny knack for (which he has yet to replicate to such a degree) was knowing what worked well, and what wouldn’t work well, when translated to film. As slow as the films are, they are a masterpiece nonetheless in tension, character- and world-building, and even in the extended editions, nothing is present without reason. Sure, Aragorn doesn’t set out from Rivendell with Andúril in hand, knowing he is to be crowned king, as he does in the books, but this would have worked against the audience’s empathy for him had Jackson stuck hardcore to the text. Modern audiences expect character arcs, and arguably Tolkien was less a master of character-building than he was world-building.

Even when Sam (albeit temporarily) abandons Frodo in the passages above Cirith Ungol (a thing that never happens in the books), it works to the emotional tension of the film, serving as a breaking point, and moment of darkness before moving into the final climax of the film. These changes, I would argue, are for the better – at least in the telling of the story cinematically – and these three movies remain to this day my favorite works of art ever committed to film.

I can’t wait to see them in 4K, and when the remastered versions come out next year, I’ll be first in line!

What are your favorite moments from The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Do they stand the test of time, visually and content-wise? Let me know!

The Lord of the Rings and its Extended Movie Universe

I was talking to a colleague the other day about movies, and he revealed to me that he and his roommate are making a concerted effort to watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its entirety for the first time ever. After I got over my initial shock that there still exist people in the world who haven’t seen these magnificent pieces of cinematic history, we started talking about some of the scenes he had seen so far (he hasn’t yet got to The Return of the King), his immediate impression of the characters and ideas within, and how he felt overall about the films.

He loved Gandalf, and how he straight up gets blazed with Bilbo right at the outset of The Fellowship of the Ring (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Tolkien wouldn’t have meant it to be actual ‘weed’); he also told me how he was ROFLing at the Gandalf the Grey/Gandalf the White scene where he forces Saruman out of Théoden’s head, but that he nonetheless recognized it as an important scene.

One of the things my colleague revealed to me, however, was how it took him some time to get over the clichés of the movies, until he took a moment to recognize that virtually every medieval/fantasy film ever was in actual fact inspired by The Lord of the Rings, and that the clichés are there because it’s really the originator of so many of them. And he was thinking of it from a filmic perspective of the last two decades – never mind the near-century since Tolkien first started writing about Middle-Earth.

His enthusiasm, however, has made me want to revisit these epic films again (I usually watch the trilogy from start to finish at least two or three times a year) with a naive eye, if possible, and try to remember what it was like when I first saw them back in the early 2000s. Whilst some of the CGI has aged better than others (Gollum: yes; Legolas fighting an oliphant: no), and the more I watch them the more critical I become of everything – despite still loving them to death – there is to this day something magnificent, incredibly epic, and almost magical about these three movies that has (so far) transcended time and allows them to remain as one of the most unlikely successes of modern cinema.

But I find myself also – perhaps in anticipation of Amazon’s extended Lord of the Rings TV series – wanting to revisit a trilogy that has not done as well, and that I have certainly not watched as much: The Hobbit films.

Where the scenes that stick out to me in The Lord of the Rings are usually the ones that are epic, magnificent and truly grand, the ones that stand out the most from The Hobbit films are more often the ones that drag it down into an abyss from which even Amazon may struggle to rescue the franchise from: the barrel scene, or Legolas defying gravity, or even the fact that they completely failed to bookend the trilogy properly (it starts with a flashback from which we never actually return). Whilst some of the scenes are simply poorly adapted from the book, some of the more egregious and unforgivable parts include the love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and Kili – two of which were never even in Tolkien’s original work.

That being said, I have a soft spot for these films – in descending order of softness as the films go on – partially because, like them or not, they’re what we have as a cinematic adaptation of one of the most beloved books in history, but also because I understand the difficulties and pressures that Peter Jackson et al were under to pull off something that even approached the grandiose heights of The Lord of the Rings trilogy: a foreshortened filming schedule, disastrous reshoots, cast and crew that were in despair of being unable to share sets with each other (Ian McKellen in particular was devastated that he was almost entirely alone in green screen for the entirety of the shoot), and a change of director halfway through all contributed to a project that Peter Jackson would later say nearly destroyed him.

Besides, if we can forgive Legolas surfing on piles of Orc corpses in The Two Towers and Aragorn and crew diving through cascades of skulls in The Return of the King, can we really object so strongly to a CGI orc that didn’t need to be in the film, or side plots that were extended beyond need just to fill time? There was plenty of silliness in the original trilogy, and plenty of deviations from the source material, and in some ways I would argue The Hobbit films are actually more faithful to the book: in order to flesh out three lengthy movies, there’s virtually not a single thing in the book that was omitted from the films.

At the end of the day, I still believe we’re fortunate to not only have all of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings adapted into high-budget films, but to have them done (in the end) by the same team of writers, producers and directors such that they at least have a consistent feel and tone, and feel very much like part of a single cinematic universe (something Marvel took a page from when creating their own magnificent cinematic universe). I don’t know how necessary Amazon’s billion-dollar TV series will feel when it eventually comes out, but I remain hopeful that it will take heed of these thoughts and make it feel like it fits with the films themselves (the fact that it’s being filmed again in New Zealand is a positive thing in this regard).

I think I may re-approach this set of films in the near future (hey, maybe even tonight!), starting with An Unexpected Journey and going all the way through to The Return of the King. This way I can get a feel for the entire story from start to finish, and still end on the strongest film of the six. I feel The Hobbit films deserve a second chance, at least from me, and I want to experience the good parts (the Misty Mountain song near the beginning of An Unexpected Journey, or the battle of wits between Bilbo and Smaug in The Desolation of Smaug) despite the worse parts, many of which I’ve broached already.

And of course, I feel for Peter Jackson. He’s personally one of my favorite directors, and not just because of his work on The Lord of the Rings; I adored his take on The Lovely Bones, and even the more recent Mortal Engines was a decent film, despite the logical fallacies of the entire concept, which of course is more to do with the original book than anything Peter Jackson did. I just think that his career and reputation were ruined by The Hobbit films, and it really wasn’t his fault; when he took over the helm from Guillermo del Toro, the studio refused to allow him any additional time for rewrites and reshoots, meaning some of it was filmed without even a basic storyboard.

What are your thoughts on the entirely of The Lord of the Rings cinematic universe? Do agree that The Hobbit films ruined it, or do you think that – for what they are – they should still be respected as the best cinematic adaption of Tolkien’s masterpiece that we likely will ever get?