Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings

With all due respect to Francis Ford Coppola and his epic Godfather series the best movie trilogies of all time are George Lucas’ Star Wars and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Since the release of LOTR a debate has raged over water coolers, parlor tables, and at bars and parties over which movie franchise will ultimately go down as the best and most influential trilogy in motion picture history. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings stand toe to toe in court of public opinion vying for the coveted title of best movie trilogy ever.

Which movies were more popular? Both Star Wars and LOTR were box office juggernauts. When Star Wars came out in 1977 it immediately became a cultural phenomenon and the highest grossing movie of all time, a title it held for TWENTY years until James Cameron’s Titanic knocked it off its perch. Star Wars now sits at number two all-time. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) are at #22 and #18 respectively. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) is at #16 while The Two Towers (2002) is #11 and The Return of the King (2003) is #7 on the list of the highest grossing movies ever. If you combine the gross box office receipts of the two trilogies Star Wars made $1.061 billion while Lord of the Rings earned $1.032 billion, a difference of only $30 million or 2.73 percent. These numbers illustrate that the two trilogies are in a virtual flat-footed tie for box office supremacy. It remains to be seen which will reign supreme in the world of DVD and video sales.

Which movies had better special effects? When comparing LOTR and Star Wars you have to put the movies into the context of the times as far as the available technology. In ’77 the effects in the original Star Wars were breathtaking and groundbreaking. Nothing like the epic light saber duel between Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader, and the two Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader battles in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had ever been seen in a movie theater. The sight of the Star Destroyers and the dreaded Death Star were revolutionary. The fearsome battle between the Rebels and Imperial forces on the ice moon of Hoth featured the nearly impregnable AT-AT Walkers and stunning visuals done largely by miniatures. Likewise, LOTR employed every known trick in the book. The final battle before the gates of Minis Tirith in Return of the King featured a stirring catapult exchange and circling ring wraiths, all the product of computer animation. Perhaps the best use of technology in LOTR was the depiction of the slimy Gollum. Quite simply, the animated Gollum was perfect. Plus, I’ll never forget the stand off between Gandalf and the Balrog on the bridge of Khazad-dum. Star Wars was pure science fiction that relied heavily on special effects as LOTR was pure fantasy also with a heavy reliance on special effects. But the question remains…which made better use of special effects? Hard to say. Given the times and available technology the answer is both are equally mesmerizing in the special effects department.

Which trilogy told the better story? This may be where we find a slight separation between Star Wars and LOTR. Both movie trilogies depicted biblical type struggles between good and evil and featured some of the most memorable characters in movie history. Who can forget mythical figures like Yoda, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Emperor, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Eowyn, Faramir and brother Boromir, King Theoden, Elrond, Galadriel, Merry, Pippin, Samwise Gamgee, and the unforgettable Gollum?

The forces of evil in these movie masterpieces were sinister and diabolical. It doesn’t get any darker than the brooding Darth Vader or the ever present and wicked ring wraiths led by the Witch King. What separates LOTR from Star Wars was the malevolent and potent presence of Sauron, the ultimate puppet master of darkness. While Emperor Palpatine was diabolical and sinister there’s something inherently more menacing about a figure who’s essence survives actual physical death only to regain strength and malice while lying idle atop a black tower. Palpatine’s viciousness is unrivaled but Sauron’s evil spirit was sustained by a tiny band of gold fashioned by his own hand. Palpatine was omniscient and foreboding but Sauron’s blood hatred for all that was good fueled the War of the Ring. While Palpatine was primarily concerned with concentrating and maintaining power Sauron was bent on pure and unadulterated destruction. The problem in Star Wars is that throughout the trilogy one often gets the impression that Vader is in charge or that he acts somewhat independently. In contrast, Sauron, through his spirit, is in complete control of his minions and the impression one gets is that he is more feared and powerful than Palpatine or Vader. The very mention of Sauron’s name inspired mortal fear. Vader and Palpatine were despised but not as feared as Sauron was. The portrayal of evil in LOTR was a bit more ominous than in Star Wars. This representation enhanced the narrative of LOTR more so than in Star Wars.

The character development in LOTR was simply better than in Star Wars. From the very beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring it was nearly impossible not to become deeply attached to the characters. In contrast, it was somewhat easier to detach one’s emotions from the characters in Star Wars. Throughout LOTR the deaths of primary figures were not so much witnessed as they were felt. The tragic loss of Boromir and Theoden were gut wrenching and difficult to deal with. As Boromir met his demise at the hand of the leader of the Uruk-hai one was struck by his bravery and impulse to protect the hobbits at the expense of his own life. The regal Theoden was killed by the Lord of the Nazgul but his demise was punctuated by the fact his daughter Eowyn witnessed her father’s death. Eowyn tried to defend Theoden and nearly paid with her own life but was able to exact revenge after Merry stabbed the Witch King. Almost from the very beginning one got the impression that none of the main characters in Star Wars would die, no matter how dire the circumstances. The most profound loss in Star Wars was when the beloved Yoda died. That was extremely sad but not difficult to reconcile. In addition, the friendships that developed in LOTR seemed far more profound than in Star Wars. Sam and Frodo were deeply devoted to each other as were Merry and Pippin. Perhaps the most compelling duo was Gimli and Legolas. These two unlikeliest of friends became a rich and dynamic duo, exchanging orc body counts while at the same time offering comfort to each other. In Star Wars the friendships seemed to be more the products of marriages of convenience than devoted relationships. Han Solo was self-serving and would have left the Alliance at a moments notice. The closest bond in Star Wars existed between C3PO and R2D2. These two droids were inseperable. Luke and Leia loved each other but the whole Han/Princess thing was a distraction and detracted from the plot. However, it was enjoyable watching the chemistry and latent sexual tension build between the two. Because of the subtle intricacies of the character development in LOTR the emotional investment in the primary players was greater than in Star Wars.

It probably isn’t fair to compare the two trilogies. Both were beautifully told stories with unpredictable plot twists and transcendent moments. Peter Jackson had J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic as a basis for the movie narrative whereas Lucas crafted Star Wars entirely on his own. Both were lavish and gorgeous tales shot brilliantly with absolutely perfect casts. Both were exquisite in their execution and worthy of iconic status. In the future it will be nearly impossible to eclipse Lucas and Jackson’s achievements. In fifty years and after the dust settles I’m confident that Star Wars and LOTR will still be the pinnacle of movie making. But for my money Lord of the Rings stands as the best trilogy ever set to film.