I saw Peter Jackson’s Helms Deep twice on Wednesday. Though I liked the film better the second time, I was still disappointed. Much of that disappointment is a result of baggage that I bring as an audience-member and not a result of Jackson’s filmmaking; nearly every other review I’ve read or heard has been glowing.
I was going to write a proper paragraph-based review with nice transitions, etc. etc. etc. but I’m not up to the effort. Instead I’m going to provide a review which uses lots of bullet points. Warning: spoilers ahead!
Please keep in mind that I do not hate Peter Jackson’s Helms Deep; I’m just disappointed by it. I was also disappointed by The Fellowship of the Ring last year, though I’ve warmed to it after multiple viewings. Most of my review focuses on the negative aspects of Helms Deep, but that’s only because all of the other reviews are glowing and you can read them to find out about all that is good about the film.
Here are some disappointing features shared by The Fellowship of the Ring and Peter Jackson’s Helms Deep:
- Intrusive music
- Howard Shore‘s score isn’t bad, but it’s omnipresent, and sometimes overwhelms the action on the screen. Maybe this is a problem with me as an audience member. Perhaps others like it. I don’t.
- Moving camera
- I was sick last year when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring. The always-moving camera made me feel even more nauseated. Peter Jackson (and his unit directors) don’t seem to have enough confidence in their framing to allow a simple static shot. The camera pans and sweeps and soars and zooms and never stays in one place for long. It’s dizzying.
- Yes, elves are wispy and mystic. But these films play them in such a languorous fashion that they nearly put me to sleep whenever they appear. The elves speak s-l-o-w-l-y. They move s-l-o-w-l-y. It gives the intended other-worldly effect, but it also slows the pacing. Rivendell and Lothlorien are the two slow points in Fellowship. The Arwen/Elronod/Galadriel section slows Helms Deep. I’m not suggesting that these scenes should not be in the films, just that they should have been done differently.
- Because The Lord of the Rings is a huge story, it’s impossible for Peter Jackson to put everything on the screen. It’s inevitable that some things have to be cut. Tom Bombadil? Yes, I love him, too, but he’s not essential to the story. However, I don’t understand why essential bits were cut (or glossed over): Galadriel’s gifts in Fellowship (which, fortunately, are restored in the extended DVD), Merry and Pippin’s experiences with the orcs, the Ents, etc. Merry and Pippin are give rather short shrift in Helms Deep, which is unfortunate.
- My least favorite parts of these films are the battle sequences. The book has battle sequences, and they are integral to the story. I am not opposed to battle sequences, even long ones, if they are done well. The battle scenes in these films are not done well. They’re long and nonsensical. Jackson spends a lot of time establishing that the orcs, especially the Uruk-Hai, are threatening, yet when they enter combat, they’re surprisingly ineffective. They’re like Star Wars stormtroopers with swords instead of blasters. In Ewoks Attack, pint-sized teddy bears are able to take out trained battle troops with rocks. In both Fellowship of the Ring and Helms Deep, Merry and Pippin take about trained battle troops with rocks. We’re supposed to find these villains threatening?
Here are my specific comments regarding Peter Jackson’s Helms Deep:
- Despite the movie’s three hour length, things felt rushed. Important plot points are glossed over in favor of the epic final battle scene.
- Some plot points, especially those related to the battle sequences, are ludicrous. From the sheer stupid:
- Where do Merry and Pippin get the stones that they throw while perched upon Treebeard’s shoulders?
- Why are they throwing stones again? They did it at the end of Fellowship; it was stupid then, it’s stupid now: these hobbits are hefting and throwing stones so large, and throwing them with such accuracy, that they kill orcs? Give me a break.
to just silly on an abstract level:
- If Saruman is such a mastermind, if he’s going to the trouble to mass ten thousands of orcs, then:
- Why doesn’t he give them a little training so that they don’t fall like matchstick men at the first hint of combat. These Uruk-Hai are supposed to be tough and scary, yet they’re so delicate that two hobbits can hold off dozens of them. That’s not very scary. They’re no better than rats.
- Why doesn’t he provide them with combined arms? The only weapons the Uruk-Hai seem to have are spears and those funny pseudo-carpenters squares. That’s fine for close combat, but it kind of sucks when your opponents have longbows, you know? At Helms Deep, there are two Uruk-Hai with crossbows, but they’re seen only briefly for dramatic effect. They certainly aren’t around when they’d actually be useful (as when Gimli and Aragorn are scaling the wall of the keep).
- Wormtongue moans, “Where will we find an army large enough to storm Helms Deep” and Saruman takes him to the window to see tens of thousands of Uruk-Hai massed outside Isengard. Give me a break. What? Wormtongue doesn’t know anything of Saruman’s master plan? And somehow thousands of orcs managed to gather outside in hushed whispers and tiptoes? This is an example of the filmmakers choosing the nonsensical simply for dramatic effect.
- Another example of the nonsensical in the service of the dramatic: as the Uruk-Hai march to Helms Deep they make an impressive thump-thump-thump marching-in-unison kind of sound. That’s great, except they are obviously not marching in unison. What we should hear is a chaotic shuffling of feet, but that just wouldn’t be as fun now, would it?
- Gollum has no dangly bits where his dangly bits should be.
- Theoden should speak in iambic pentameter.
- People have complained that Gimli is relegated to comic relief. He certainly serves that purpose in Peter Jackson’s Helms Deep, but I don’t mind. I’m more miffed that Legolas doesn’t play a larger role. Legolas rocks. Also, Merry and Pippin’s story has been truncated. (Though I suspect we’ll see more of them in an extended DVD.)
- Our heroes are girding themselves for battle. Gimli is in the middle of trying on a chainmail dress when elven archers march through the gates. Everyone rushes to greet them. When Gimli lumbers down the stairs, he is now clothed for combat. What? What happened to the chainmail dress he was just wearing?
- Gandalf and the Rohirrim charge down an impossibly steep slope. Any horse galloping down this embankment would, in reality, lose its footing on the first stride and tumble headlong into the waiting army of orcs. The scene looks silly.
- Theoden and Aragorn’s final charge knocks over orcs on the bridge as if they were bowling pins. These orcs look completely computer animated in the way they march exactly alike, the way none of them stand aside to let the riders pass, the way they’re simply there to be pushed off the bridge. It’s silly.
- Did I mention I don’t like it when Merry and Pippin throw stones?
- I don’t mind Peter Jackson making changes to the story to improve how it plays on the screen, but some of the changes seem to serve no purpose. Why have Faramir take Frodo to Gondor? What purpose does it serve? None that I can see. Worse is Aragorn’s faux death? Is this simply so he can enter a fugue state in which he dreams of Arwen? This side-plot seems contrived and unnecessary. (Indeed, it literally is contrived and unnecessary.)
- Not to beat a dead horse but: the battle films are overlong and poorly staged. (And this is the primary reason that the other bits need to be glossed over). Yes, I know I’m a minority voice here. Most people love the battle scenes, especially Helms Deep. I’m not one of them. The final battle in Fellowship (the movie) is drawn from two pages in the book, yet lasts twenty minutes on screen. The film version features Merry and Pippin finding stones on the floor of a forest (problem one) that they heave (problem two), toppling orcs (problem three, especially since the orcs are, seemingly, killed by the throws). This is typical of all the battle scenes in both films so far. On Weathertop, Aragorn throws a torch at one of the Nazgul and it goes up in flames. What? did he bathe in kerosene? The battle of Helms Deep is rife with these kind of errors. I can’t help thinking that if Saruman had thought to construct more than two ranged weapons. Really, the battles are my biggest beef with the films. The other gripes I can forgive. It’s not even a problem with the script. I don’t mind battle scenes, and they could still follow the same script but just have the action on screen be more consistent, less preposterous, better edited.
- It was clever to merge Gandalf’s voice with Saruman’s when Gandalf the White first appears. I like that.
- The acting is uniformly excellent, especially that from the supporting players. Grima, Theoden and Eowyn are fantastic, almost Shakespearean. This is the element of the books and the films that I love: the literate epic drama, not the fantastic battle scenes. Pare down the battle scenes and give me more intrigue with Theoden and Grima and Saruman! Give me more acting, less fighting. This would make a better film. (For me.)
- Generally, I’m not a fan of horses; they’re big clumsy beasts that step on young boys and scar them for life (literally and figuratively). However, I think horsemanship is a skill that transfers well to film and I want more. The little that is on screen is great, but give me more more more!
- Wormtongue rocks. Well done!
- Arwen has fantastic lips. Very kissable. They’re the best part of the film, really.
- Gollum has no dangly bits where his dangly bits should be.
- Jeremy says: “Those rocks actually fall like rocks instead of Styrofoam blocks.” (This is true of the bigger pieces, but the smaller “stones” in close-ups still fall like Styrofoam blocks.)
- Treebeard: “That doesn’t make any sense to me. But, then, you are very small.”
- Gollum’s internal conflict plays well on the screen. It’s written and performed well.
- The song that plays over the end credits is by one of my favorite obscure artists, Emiliana Torrini. It’s great!
I like nearly every portion of Peter Jackson’s Helms Deep in isolation. If you were to show me any one scene, I’d like it. However, when the scenes are strung together into a film, something seems to be missing. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Remember: I do not hate this film. It’s above average in fact, meriting a 6.0 on J.D.’s Patented Move Rating Scale. I had hoped for more.
One of my favorite bits from Tolkien:
If you ask it of me, I will give you the One Ring.
You offer it to me freely? I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired this.
In place of a Dark Lord you would have a queen! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn! Treacherous as the sea! Stronger than the foundations of the earth! All shall love me and despair!
I pass the test. I will diminish and go into the west and remain Galadriel.