Popular Culture  •  January 5, 2003

The Lord of the Rings: Engineering, not Artistic, Marvel

Yesterday I finally had a chance to see the first installment of “The Lord of the Rings”, “The Fellowship of the Ring.” I knew very little about the trilogy and about the writer J. R. R. Tolkien before I saw the movie. Afterwards, I did some research on the history and the background of the book and its author. In short, it was one of the most impressively produced films I’ve seen, and at the same time was one of the most thoroughly boring films I’ve ever sat through for over 3 hours.

Before I saw the movie, I was aware of the peculiar reactions of the people who had seen the film. They were either enthralled or bored to death. I wasn’t sure which side I was going to be. Many Star Wars fans seem to like the film, so I figured I might be in that camp. After watching it for about 20 minutes, I started to realize that I was in the other camp. What got me through the entire ordeal was my phenomenological curiosity: How could something this beautiful, elaborate, spectacular, and crafty be so utterly boring? This is what prompted me to do some research after the movie.

The review in the Guardian by Peter Bradshaw says, “does it have to be quite so boring?” The Los Angeles Times calls it “Geek Love”. The New York Times says, “Still, Mr. Jackson rises so completely to the challenges here that I can’t wait to see his next movie -- by that, I mean the one after the ‘Ring’ cycle ends.” Roger Ebert is enthusiastic about the movie but gives no reason (other than the technical marvels) why it is a good movie. The enthusiasts seem to only talk about the complexity of the story and the technical gimmickries of the film, and no single reason why I should appreciate it as art.

How could one camp find it so enthralling and the other so boring? What does the former see that the latter doesn’t? I was unable to find any theories on the Internet explaining this interesting phenomenon, which left me to construct my own theories.

In a single word, “The Lord of the Rings” is not art, but engineering. It is an engineering marvel in more ways than one. Obviously it is a piece of technical engineering with spectacular special effects and computer generated characters, which is an accomplishment of the director Peter Jackson, and it is also a piece of conceptual engineering infused with scholarly knowledge of linguistics, history, and myth, which is the part Tolkien contributes. “The Lord of the Rings” is a simulated world that is so logically cohesive that it shows the ingenuity of the creator.

Compare this with the world of auto-racing, especially Formula 1. The Formula 1 cars are modern engineering marvels. They are products of the cutting-edge science, ingenious inventions, and the world-class engineers. For the fans of Formula 1, seeing the cars go around and around the track is an enthralling experience. For the outsiders, there couldn’t be anything more boring. Women especially are not easily excited by a great piece of engineering, which explains why neither Formula 1 nor “The Rings” is popular among women.

“The Rings” does not tell a story, but constructs a simulated world by creating characters, assigning certain attributes to them, and showing by example how those attributes manifest. Each stage of “The Rings” presents a new obstacle to simply illustrate what each character is about, his/her personalities, strengths and weaknesses, as well as the weapons of his/her choice. At the end of the movie, we have a good understanding of the vocabularies of this simulated world, but it ends without telling any story--by that, I mean some sort of artistic substance. One can call it art, but it is as much a piece of art as Apple’s iPod is; it’s a great piece of engineering.

Some say it is about good versus evil. I must disagree. Some characters are defined as good, and others as evil, but that does only as much as enabling the merchandisers to list them as attributes on the trading cards. Just because there are good and evil characters does not mean that it is about good and evil. What you do with the idea of good and evil is what matters. “The Rings” does nothing more than to pit them against each other.

Normally when a writer creates a fantastic world, it is so that it can be used as a metaphor to convey something of our world. “The Rings” does nothing more than to take us away from our mundane reality. It is like the difference between going to Thailand to experience cultural differences, and going to the Virgin Islands simply to escape our routine lives. This explains why “The Rings” is so popular among introverted young boys, so called “geeks”. It provides for them a refuge from their traumatic reality. In it, they can become someone else that they are not, and forever avoid facing their true selves. In this scenario, the last thing you want is the reminder of the pain from their real lives. The more detached from reality this fantastic world is, the better for them.

All the emotions presented in “The Rings” are mere symbols. The pain of loss of someone, the love for another human being, the fear of the unknown, and the temptation of power are all unmotivated, symbolically represented, and stripped of any true emotional values. They are almost dictionary definitions of what human emotions are--all easily explicable by a few words.

The reason why the geeks are always trying to escape their reality, is because they are afraid of it. They build a fortress of complexity around them to protect themselves. How do I know this? Because I was one of them. (Perhaps I still am to some degree.) Why do geeks love computer programming, math, science, and physics so much? Because these worlds allow them not only to escape reality, but also to hide behind them. Often these geek programmers who know nothing but programming, get upset if the irrationality of reality forces them to compromise the integrity of their pristine programming models. For them, the conceptual purity comes before reality. They are unable to cope with the fact that reality isn’t as rational as they wish.

If “The Rings” protected you from the pain and the suffering of teenage years, you cannot help feeling a great deal of appreciation for it. It’s like a piece of metal that shielded you from a bullet. If this is the case, you are not in a position to objectively evaluate “The Rings”. There is no point in arguing with others who find it boring since they do not have the same attachment that you have. The question here is: should emotional attachment be embraced as art? I argue not. Just as many parents see their emotional attachment to their children to be love, it is very easy to confuse attachment with love. To be able to truly love something or someone, you have to be able to let it go first. Perhaps you should watch Star Wars Episode I again and learn from Anakin’s mom.