Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones Special Edition (Widescreen) compared and contrasted with The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings Special Edition Joseph Moore Two of the most hyped science-fiction/fantasy films in history are due to be released on DVD mid-November. Both are "special edition" releases packed full of extras. Both appeal to the same general audience, and both have a dedicated, zealous fan base. Both compete to be the ultimate "reference" disc for pushing the DVD format, and home theaters in general, to their limits. Finally, they each represent two very distinct philosophies and styles of filmmaking. There are already several good reviews of these discs, so this is by no means meant to be an exhaustive review, but rather a comparison of the two. I've broken my commentary into several sections for organizational purposes, but there no particular order and there is plenty of overlap. BUDGET, STAKES AND HYPE Both films were surrounded by years of hype. AOTC had the added pressure of needing to be better than its predecessor, while LOTR had the fortune of an entire studio riding on its back. An accurate budget for AOTC is not really public knowledge, but it is certainly a much more expensive film than LOTS. While LOTR's total budget might exceed AOTC's, it is being used to produce two more films, so in actuality the budget for this first episode was relatively modest by blockbuster standards. STORY At their core both films try to weave universal human themes (love, valor, betrayal, etc.) into an action filled story set against epic backdrops. If one were to reduce each story to a one paragraph synopsis (a common screenwriting technique,) both ideas are revealed as compelling. When stripped of all presentation, both stories are well planned and nicely fleshed out. This is good, because no amount of work will save a film if it's underlying theme is weak. So, in this respect, both films have an equal chance of success. Another area of comparison is that both stories are based on an existing work, of sorts. AOTC is an original story, but its ties to the film before and the four after (in order of story progression, not release) are inescapable. That's not even considering all of the other works, in every conceivable medium, that populate the "Star Wars Universe." Although George Lucas originated and maintains the overall vision, legions of fans hold him and his associates accountable to that vision with almost religious fervor. LOTR is, of course, based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkein. Over the past half century these books have cultivated perhaps the most dedicated fan base of any work of fiction. They also continue to grow in critical regard. Because LOTR is now generally considered a great work of literature, in any genre, Peter Jackson and his team faced a daunting task in adapting the works to film. SCREENPLAY The most tangible link between story and film is the screenplay. Often it is the defining roadmap for a film, sometimes it is simply a platform for exploration. In either case, it is usually a good indicator of what will eventually be projected. Both films, owing to their technical natures, are slaves to planning (screenplay, pre-visualization, etc.) Just like in animation, it would be far too dangerous and costly for either of these films to go very far down a dead-end path. (That being said, Lucas did indeed tweak and re-tool up until just days before release.) Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to see the complete screenplays for either film. Disappointingly, neither set of discs includes a screenplay. I have read excerpts, though, and a lot can be garnered from other supplemental material and the Internet. It should come as no surprise to anyone who's seen AOTC, that the screenplay is where its problems start. It's inconceivable that anyone would utter the bland, stilted dialogue that plagues the movie unless it was written down in front of them! Plotting the technical details of the film begins to take over at this point, and the rest of the production suffers. Lucas should have stepped out of the way for this aspect of production as it is apparently his Achilles heel. The screenplay for LOTR seems to be a much stronger work. It's obvious that a tremendous amount of labor went into turning Tolkein's sprawling epic into a consumer-palatable feature. Crucial decisions concerning what to cut and what to add to stay true to the vision, while creating interesting characters and entertaining pacing, are all resolved. All of the remaining aspects of the film's production will still have a large impact on the overall outcome, but the "roadmap" is a solid start. Dialogue On the surface, the dialogue for both of these films is not that dissimilar. Both attempt to convey an aristocratic, romanticized version of English. Both have the potential of being perceived as long-winded, pompous and artificial. Both are critical to making us care about the characters and for advancing the plot. Discounting performances, the big difference between the two is that LOTR's style is based on the works of a master linguist, while AOTC's dialogue is based on, it seems, simplistic stereotypes. Ultimately, dialogue proves to be the worst aspect of AOTC and one of the best in LOTR. The only complaint that can be leveled against the LOTR's dialogue is the inclusion of a couple of Hollywood style one-liners. They're real groaners that add nothing to the plot. CASTING Again, the casting decisions for both of these films appear similar. (In fact, they both showcase a strong performance from Christopher Lee.) They both make use of an eclectic mix of talented American and British actors, and they both take some risks (ATOC on relative newcomer Hayden Christianson as Annakin Skywalker and LOTR's decision to cast Elija Woods as Frodo Baggins.) ATOC suffers from several questionable cameos, and outright casting gaffs. (Celebrity spotting rarely enhances a film.) Both casts seem to have a roughly equal chance of turning in great performances, though. Why are AOTC's performances regarded with such disdain, then? DIRECTION Lucas and Jackson couldn't differ more in their approach to telling their respective tales. AOTC was assembled, cut 'n' paste fashion. It's more of an exercise in digital film technology than a successful feature film. Lucas obviously cares much less about extracting a believable performance from an actor than he does about adding another layer of detail to a background matte. Ironically, Lucas' desire to be freed from the technical limitations of Episodes IV,V,VI has shackled him to a digital taskmaster. Lucas is an incredible visionary, but he wasn't that great of a director to start with. Now he is a slave to technology, resulting in a terribly stiff directorial style. Jackson chose to make use of as much "reality" as possible in order to create a real sense of place and time, augmented with special effects as necessary (which is to say, "a lot.") The long months of interaction between the cast and crew in New Zealand created a sense of camaraderie that shows through on every frame. It's hard to call Jackson "old school" by normal standards, but compared to Lucas, his acceptance of established conventions serves him well. He is able to wrangle the technical details of filming while still coaxing authentic performances from his cast. Editing/Pacing Even though the theatrical release (not to mention the vastly expanded DVD version) of LOTR is considerably longer than AOTC, it never drags. AOTC practically grinds to a halt in the middle of the film, and doesn't get back on track until the end. Part of the reason is the piecemeal editing of the film, but to be honest it is mostly because "act two" needs to be carried by its performances, which it isn't. Whenever the digital "gee-haws" stop, AOTC stops. LOTR gallops along from one plot point to another. The movie doesn't so much end, as it pauses until "The Two Towers" is released. Don't get me wrong, the film is long and demanding, but if the subject matter is of interest, then there really isn't a weak stretch in the 208 minutes. ART DIRECTION/DESIGN/CINEMATOGRAPHY These two films feature the most comprehensive, expansive designs in film history. Every aspect of visual production has been imagined and executed to the Nth degree. Within their respective worlds, the two designs are perfect. (Both films feature particularly good costuming and props.) LOTR choose to execute its vision through practical means whenever possible, while AOTC chose to do everything possible in the digital realm. These decisions yield very different looking films. I'm not sure you can really compare the cinematography of the two, though. Actually, I'm not sure you can compare the cinematography of AOTC to *any* live action film. In this regard, it would be more accurate to compare it to "Monsters Inc." or "Shrek." Every single shot in AOTC is beautifully realized, meticulously thought-out. The palettes are lush, the camera-work dizzying. Whether in Dex's Diner, or on the water planet of Kamino, the entire galaxy is rendered consistently. But, ultimately, everything looks more surreal than real. So much is artificial that there just aren't enough visual cues to make a viewer's brain accept anything as true, no matter how well done. LOTR features several very distinct looks. Shots of vast New Zealand exteriors are juxtapositioned against wholly fantastic locales, each of which with a different "look." The end result is something like a music video that edits together several disparate styles. I personally found this to be the weakest aspect of the film's production because it forced me to think "Oh, now I'm on a sound stage. Oh, that's a digital camera move. Look, we're back outside." Several CG shots are particularly egregious, especially the over-the-top fly-bys around Orthanc and it's goblin army. The only time such a jarring difference is appropriate is in the Mines of Moria, which are such a clear geographic dividing line (above the ground/in a mine) that the difference is justified. The film would have benefited from one consistent, epic style of cinematography ... think "Lawrence of Arabia." PERFORMANCES AOTC serves up a very inconsistent plate of acting. A few players shine, but for the most part actors that have proven they are capable of great range fall flat. Certainly, the lines that they have to work with are among the silliest every put to paper, but the same can be said for all of the Star Wars movies. Why can some actors pull it off, and others not? I recently read a theory that I believe to be credible. (I'm sorry but I can't recall the original author.) Overall, the British actors do a much better job than the Americans. The prevailing method of acting in England is very "internal." Because the player doesn't depend on his environment, props, or even other actors to develop his performance he is able to hold his own in a spartan production environment that will be realized later in post (Similar to stage acting.) American screen actors, on the other hand, largely have been trained to react externally. They're used to feeding off of other actors and even the familiarity of a prop. The Americans, stripped naked and alone in Lucas' blue screen void, are left defenseless. Contrast the credible performances of Ewan MacGregor and Ian McDiarmid against the dismal showing of Samuel Jackson and Natalie Portman for proof of this theory. The fact that one of the strongest performances is the combination of Frank Oz's voice characterization and the digital puppeteers giving life to Yoda is further proof that AOTC is basically an animated feature and that Lucas would be more comfortable if he didn't have to use flesh and blood actors at all. The performances in LOTR are mostly even (important for an ensemble piece,) and in some cases, career defining. The actors manage to treat their lines with almost Shakespearean reverence while still breathing life into each phrase. The weakest characterization is John Ryes-Davies' Gimli the Dwarf. Despite heavy make-up and some bad lines, he still manages to be better than most everyone in AOTC. Perhaps the most notable performance in LOTR is given by Liv Tyler. Not only is she playing against some real heavy-hitters, but her character is elevated in importance over what Tolkein originally penned, making her an easy target for every over-zealous fan-boy. Not only does she hold her own, her limited screen time is some of the most memorable. VISUAL EFFECTS AOTC *is* a special effect. Or rather, the actors were the special effects and everything else was the bread and butter of the film. Because everything is artificially assembled no particular effect stands-out, which can be a good thing. It's impossible to draw the line between practical, miniature, optical and digital. The proper mindset for viewing this film is that of looking at the biggest budget video game in history. There is so much eye-candy that it's silly to point out anything in particular except to talk about digital Yoda. The animator's movement and Frank Oz's voice perfectly complement. Throughout most of the movie the combination delivers a seamless screen presence. The final battle scene, in which Yoda goes ninja, though, goes over the top and draws a little too much attention to the fact that the green guy isn't real. LOTR's effects are more of a mixed bag. The practical effects are mostly well done. The hobbits ears and feet aren't given a second look they're so subtle. Once again I have to pick on Gimli the Dwarf, though. His makeup is so heavy as to be distracting and obviously limits the performance he can deliver. The optical tricks to make the hobbits look small are consistently invisible. The digital effects also range in efficacy. Some are so subtle as to be unnoticeable, but others, like the cave troll are as patently CG as "JarJar Binks." The Balrog (fire demon) is both spectacular and believable at the same time. We don't get enough of a look at Golem to forecast whether or not he'll be credible in the next film where he plays a large role. SCORE John Williams delivers a great Star Wars score for AOTC. He'll never again deliver the impact he did for the first film Star Wars, but he serves AOTC well. His use of musical themes to connect past, present and future is particularly effective. The musical score of a film is often a subtle component, but it is equally often a very important element. AOTC's score doesn't necessarily call attention to itself, you won't be humming any refrains, but is integral to the film. Howard Shore's score for LOTR is equally subtle, and equally important. The "songs" by Enya, though, are distracting. Her style is too New Age for Middle Earth, and too recognizable. SOUND DESIGN It's almost as much fun to listen to a Star Wars movie as it is to look at it. Ben Burtt and John Dykstra are deservedly considered the grand masters of their field. For every whizzy sound effect that raises the hair on your arm, there are a 100 subtle fills that you never notice. AOTC's sound design is top notch, if a bit over the top. LOTR's sound is also well done (Academy Award winning well done) but much less noticeable. Foley's never draw attention to themselves. In LOTR, sound plays a supporting role. DVD VIDEO Both films are presented in their original, anamorphic-enhanced, aspect ratio. While LOTR may be the premiere example of transferring film to MPEG, AOTC was practically made for DVD. In fact, it can be argued that the best possible presentation of AOTC is in a properly calibrated THX home theater (the disc has tools to do so,) better than either the film or D-Film presentations in commercial theaters. AOTC absolutely leaps off of the screen. It's actually noticeably better than the previous gold standard for digital transfers, "Monsters Inc." I haven't read this elsewhere, but AOTC's live action (the portions "filmed" with digital cameras) is slightly less detailed than the purely digital creations in both the film, and the D-film presentations of the movie. It's subtle, but something about the semi-experimental Sony cameras isn't perfect ... my guess is that is because their HD resolution is lower than the 2k that the CG was (probably) rendered at. Either way, the difference was subtle but noticeable in theaters. The process used to convert and compress the digital "master" for the DVD manages to equalize these differences, though. The sharpness is equally impressive no matter what you are looking at. Subtle colors are rendered accurately, and vivid colors might just burn out your retinas. There are no compression artifacts or edge enhancement to speak of. It's hard to imagine that anything short of true HDTV could look better. As best I can remember, the LOTR transfer goes slightly beyond being true to the film presentation, and takes the opportunity to improve the picture a tad. (It may just be that the theaters I saw it in didn't do it justice.) In any case, the video is given more than enough bit-rate so as to render MPEG artifacts invisible. Edge-enhancement "ringing" is minimal. The movie uses quite a bit of unnatural lighting and coloring (think "The Matrix.") Rest assured that the color encoded is the color intended. Layer changes are unnoticeable on a good DVD player, but I found breaking the movie onto two discs to be an unfortunate reminder of the days of LaserDisc. DVD AUDIO AOTC features one of the most aggressive DVD mixes you'll find ... probably matched only by the Star Wars Episode I DVD. Every channel, including the EX channels, is used to full effect. Throughout the audible assault dialogue stays centered and clear. This is *the* disc to show off your sound system. It's not really a fault of the mix, so much as a sound design decision, but it should be noted that there's not a whole lot of subtlety or intimacy here. Big booms abound, though, so it really doesn't matter where you cue a disc, something's gonna rock your subwoofer! AOTC does not offer a DTS track, but I doubt that it would offer much more than this Dolby EX mix does (encoded at the highest bitrate possible.) LOTR is almost as impressive, and decidedly more natural. Here, not only is the mix used to blow you off the sofa, but also to convey environment. While there are plenty of scenes that will cause your amp to red-line, more impressive are the many times you are enveloped with subtle, directional sound. While both Dolby and DTS tracks are available, I found it hard to pick a clear winner. The DTS track may offer a bit more separation, but I think the Dolby EX track makes better use of the extra rears (if you have `em.) DVD EXTRAS The personality differences between these two films extends to their included extras. The AOTC extras, while certainly thorough, are somewhat cold and impersonal. The DVD production crew seems to be as caught up in the technology (animated menus, weblinks, etc.) as Lucas is. The commentaries all seem to focus on the technology and process, as do the documentaries. The R2-D2 "mockumentary" is priceless if only because breathes some much needed life and humor. The twelve "webisodes" are far and away the best real information, but they've been available for some time on starwars.com. The LOTR extras are in a category (and two discs) all their own. If AOTC's over-animated menus and disjointed navigation of extra content is indicative of the film (which it is) then the simple, elegant presentation of the LOTR's massive quantity of extras is equally representative. While you can navigate specifically to any number of goodies, the massive bulk of the content is thankfully presented in two linear "documentaries" (about six hours in length!) Another area of note is the commentaries (the only extras on the main movie discs.) There are four(!) distinct commentaries and virtually anyone involved of any importance is present (including most of the cast.) While AOTC's sole commentary drones on and on about the technology behind the movie, LOTR's commentaries are thorough, varied and interesting. DVD PACKAGING The AOTC set is nice, as nice as any other DVD "special edition." It doesn't compare to some of the stunning LaserDisc sets in my collection, though. (Some of those sets cost upwards of $200, though, so it's not a fair expectation I guess.) As with other DVD special releases, the specialty comes from what's on the discs, not what surrounds them. It doesn't match the style and quality of many LD packages, but the LOTR "book-like" DVD packaging is a step above any other DVD release. Because there is already a very good "standard" version with a disc full of extras, If there ever was a DVD that could have been priced high enough to include a hard-bound book, posters, screenplay, etc., etc. this would have been it. REPLAY VALUE AOTC is a great disc to pull out and show off a scene or two to a visiting friend. Because the characterization and pacing is so poor, though, it's hard to imagine watching it beginning-to-end more than a couple of times unless you are a true fan-boy. LOTR doesn't have the same jaw-dropping capability on a shot by shot basis as AOTC, but because it holds together as a complete story, though, one would be more likely to watch it the whole way through. That is if it wasn't so long. Remember this version is almost a half an hour longer than the theater version. For that reason it's doubtful you'd want to watch it with any great frequency (again, unless you are a rabid fan.) PRICING Both sets are reasonably priced, in line with other releases.