In a tricky way “Lord of the Rings” describes why we might be tempted to live inside the Matrix.  Through a combination of the events in Middle-Earth and the artistry shown to the audience, a strange Eden is formed.  Certainly “Lord of the Rings” is not the first story to play off the industrial world’s longing for a peaceful, pastoral country life (see Environmental Allegory). 

But the Shire is not simply a place where trees can grow and no one gets a divorce, but a place where there are no moral quandaries.  Sure, like the inhabitants of the Matrix, we are kept busy, placated, by the illusion of moral dilemmas (see Good vs. Evil).  There’s no real free will, only the Ring, self-defense, and genre requirements.  Jackson’s Eden also includes killing for sport (listen for the elf and the dwarf competing for kills) and numerous opportunities for violence without blame or consequence (see War).  Don’t we all want that, a little bit?  And in true pastoral style, there are no factories as far as the eye can see…or are there?

Cold industry created all this, the movie reminds us again and again, with its endless gloating of effects, art direction, costume design, whirling cameras, and everything else.  Because no movie has been this humongous and no movie constantly beats us over the head with its humongousness, no other pre-industrial movie’s industrial lineage is so apparent.  No other agrarian fantasy undercuts itself so much by reminding us, through its craft, that it took exactly what the movie is decrying in order to create the fantasy.  Perhaps Sauron is the reality of this industrial foundation trying to break into the fantasy world and damage our blissful docility.  An outbreak of Morlocks, a rebellion of server robots, a fault in the Matrix.  Perhaps the trilogy intentionally dulls its characters to show the price of this Eden.  A blissful world without choices costs us our humanity.  But we long for it anyway, and it’s a moot point:  we can’t live there.  The humans in Kubrick’s “2001” are so placated and homogenized by technology that they are like wax figures come to life.

Again, none of this is to the trilogy’s discredit.  Only its failure to examine these ideas instead of showing us a billion battle scenes can be criticized.  Is the movie an examination of this world, or is it a promotion? 

That “Lord of the Rings” has the same stultifying effect on its audience is intriguing—those who see the movie are just as indifferent to its implications as the people who made it.  At Ruthless Reviews (adult content; not suitable for anyone), where “Barry Lyndon” and “The Godfather Part II” are so elegantly analyzed, “Erin Brockovich” is torn to pieces, and virtually all action movies from the 1980s are proved to be fascist fantasies, “The Return of the King” is examined only as surface.  At the Oscars, the Academy can laugh at Sean Penn’s casually tossed-off anti-war comment and then give the big prize to arguably the most pro-war movie ever made.  The Flick Filosopher coyly wishes that “we could force the current administration to experience, 'Clockwork Orange'-style if necessary,” Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” and then gushes over a movie that glorifies what one could argue is the current administration’s exact same moral view of “we’re right, they’re wrong, kill ‘em all and don’t feel bad about it.”

As if “Lord of the Rings” is not enough of a right-wing fantasy with all its pro-war imagery, maybe it also takes a pragmatist’s delight in deflating pastoral idealism.  The digitalization of Jackson’s film makes any serious call for returning to an earlier time impossible.  The movie belittles the very hippies and counterculture that bought the books in the 1960s.  “Stupid hippies,” says the 21st century pragmatist.  “You can’t really live like this.  It takes piles and piles of machines to make it work.”

The trilogy is perhaps “safer” than any other movies ever made.  Because evil is not given a face we are never challenged to examine what tempts us.  Because the evil done by good characters is beyond their control we are never asked to examine the evil inside us.  Jackson’s decision to film all three movies at the same time is being hailed as daring and brilliant from all corners.  Yet the result is a Peter Pan effect, in which we age three years while the Fellowship remains the same no matter how long we sit in the theater.  This does not compare favorably to “Star Wars,” in which the characters aged as the actors aged; Mark Hamill had a motorcycle wreck and Princess Leia got high.  We are comforted by a Fellowship that never ages.  We are comforted by one installment of the trilogy after another that is essentially the same.  If I were a cynic I would say the movie is safest of all because it distracts us from thinking that we could be at a meaningful film instead of this one, by making us think this one is meaningful.

But I’m not a cynic.


Special thanks to the author for permission to use this article. It originally appeared in the Friday & Saturday Night Critic. (Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five and Part Six.)




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