What Do Gollum, Darth Vader & Agent Smith Have in Common?

You were just wondering about that, weren’t you? Well, I’ll explain.

Every big epic in fantasy or science fiction, needs a legendary villain-character like Darth Vader, Gollum or Agent Smith. But these three are not normal evil doers. They are very special, because their destiny is directly tied to the resolution of the whole story. They are more like causal agents than just ordinary bad guys.

Their evil is also much more nuanced than the other main villains in their holy trilogies. And their motivations are often harder to fully grasp. Take emperor Palpatine in Star Wars. He is just evil to the core. There is not a single shade of grey: he is BAD. Darth Vader, on the other hand, was actually a good man before he was seduced by the dark side of the force. Luckily, for the oppressed galaxy, Vader’s son Luke Skywalker felt there was still good in him. Luke exploited this inner conflict, which lead to the death of Palpatine by Vader’s hand at the end of Return of the Jedi. The galaxy was free once again due to Vader’s destiny.

Gollum and Agent Smith (especially after his supposed destruction by Neo in the first Matrix movie) don’t even belong to the villain class and are free agents, so to speak, Smith quite literally. They are just roaming around in their fantasy worlds, driven by their own insatiable desires. Gollum by his addiction to the Ring of Power, and Smith by his need to destroy his arch enemy Neo and the entire simulated computerworld the Matrix with it. But, like in Vader’s case, through their actions they enable the heroes of their stories to fulfill their appointed tasks while they would have otherwise failed.

Like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. He managed to get the ring all the way to Mount Doom, but could unavoidably no longer resist the power of the mighty precious and thus refused to destroy it. Gollum took his chance and jumped at Frodo, bit off his finger, and took the ring. But he could only enjoy it for a brief moment. As a crazed Frodo attacked him, Gollum fell to his doom taking the ring with him. The panic in Sauron’s one eye is very satisfying. His reign is over forever. Gandalf had foreseen this turn of events: ‘My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is over.’

Agent Smith’s faith is similar. When Neo realises that it is inevitable that Smith – who he has destroyed before – must now destroy him in order for things to end. He allows Smith to clone him, like he has done to the entire population of the Matrix (‘me, me, me’). But since Neo is the One, the anomaly of the system, this creates a fatal chain reaction eliminating the virus Smith. By pursuing his own purposes, against the will of his masters (the machines in case of The Matrix), he ensures that the humans are set free.

Do all epics have this type of causal agent? What about Harry Potter for example? Well in a way: yes, a very interesting one. When Voldemort tried to kill Harry when he was a baby, he unwillingly put a horcrux (a piece of his soul) in Harry. While Harry was growing up, he slowly discovered his connection to the Dark Lord. In the end, the only way to defeat him, was by letting Voldemort kill him. This villain created a causal agent himself that lead to his doom! Because Voldemort didn’t kill Harry, but just the horcrux. The now released Harry could return and finish off Voldemort in a final confrontation, ridding the wizard and muggle world of this ultimate baddie.

The world is more complex than just good-evil. While most of the characters in these epics are either of the hero or villain archetype, these causal agents are not so easily defined. So to answer the question, what do they have in common? They are tools used by the clashing higher forces to decide the faith of the world. Apparently, free will is absent in these worlds, and we are merely instruments of the ruling powers. This makes sense, for at least two of these trilogies (Star Wars and The Matrix) are inspired by Eastern Philosophy of which some movements (Advaita Vedanta) teaches us that free will is an illusion. The Lord of the Rings seems more in tune with paganism that also suggests that greater spiritual forces can impact the course of events or the ultimate outcome.

The individual destinies of these characters are thus intertwined with the destiny of the world at large. Thereby, they completely transcend a clearcut character definition. Beneath their wicked appearances, they actually become saviors, even though that was never their intention. Gandalf nailed it when he said: ‘Even the very wise cannot see all ends.’ Good, bad, everyone has their own perspective. But in the end, love and goodness will always be victorious.

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Book: Peter Jackson & the Making of Middle-Earth

The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been the biggest movie event of my generation. By far. Strange to think that it almost didn’t happen. An initial 200 million dollar budget for the director of splatter horror Bad Taste (one of my favorites), was too much of a risk for any Hollywood studio to take. Then Bob Shaye, CEO of New Line Cinema, took a giant leap of faith….

Ian Nathan’s Anything You Can Imagine describes Peter Jackson’s heroic quest that started more than 20 years ago. After he had completed Heavenly Creatures – a critical success that showed he could handle an emotional story – and ghost movie The Frighteners – that lead to the foundation of special effects houses Weta Digital and Weta Workshop in New Zealand – the now hot director selected Rings as one of his new projects to pursue (the others were new versions of two ape classics: King Kong and Planet of the Apes).

Development of The Lord of the Rings started off at Miramax, together with the notorious Weinstein brothers who approached the project with numerous Tony Soprano tactics. Especially Harvey. Problems arose when the Weinsteins couldn’t raise more than 75 million dollars for the initial plan of a two movie adaptation which wasn’t nearly enough. After Jackson understandably refused to make it into one large movie, the Hollywood mogul and Kiwi director had a fall out. Then Jackson’s US manager Ken Kamiss negotiated with Harvey Weinstein and they got four weeks to strike a deal with another studio. This became the now legendary deal with New Line Cinema, who gambled the studio’s future on the project. It was New Line’s Bob Shaye who suggested they make it into three rather than two movies. The Weinsteins got a great bargain out of it: big time profits and their names on the movies’ credits.

So began the longest and most exhaustive production in the history of motion pictures. No studio had ever attempted to shoot a whole trilogy in one go, for good reasons. “Had we known in advance how much we would have to do, we would have never done it”, said Jackson. But a strong passion and drive by the entire cast and crew to bring Tolkien’s world to the big screen in the best possible way they could, eventually lead to a glorious result. Nobody expected it to become that good.

I remember being completely blown away at every screening back in 2001, 2002 and 2003. These movies are absolutely perfect. The first time I saw the fellowship march on Howard Shore’s brilliant score. The wondrous Gollum crawling into frame in the beginning of The Two Towers. The Rohirrim’s epic assault at the Pelennor Fields… And so many other magic moments forever branded in the collective cinematic consciousness. Jackson gave me and my generation a cinematic experience that could match, or even exceed, the excitement of the original Star Wars trilogy.

In The Two Towers, when Gandalf returns from death, he explains to his baffled friends: “I have been sent back until my task is done.” These words are not directly from Tolkien, but from screenwriters Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens. They emphasized fate as one of the core themes of the story: “Bilbo was meant to find the ring. In which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” However pragmatic these New-Zealanders may be, fate was their compass in making those movies. Many chance encounters paved the way, major obstacles arose during production, but they overcame them all. It took the toughness of the bravest of hobbits to drive this one home. Even the conservative Academy didn’t fail to notice what they accomplished, and The Return of the King was awarded 11 major Oscars (except those for acting, the outstanding ensemble cast made it tough to single out any one actor).

Years later, fate lead to Jackson directing The Hobbit and so he had the ‘once in a lifetime experience’ twice (but there won’t be a third time, he has said). Jackson and his loyal team never expected to make better movies than Rings. They made The Hobbit to satisfy the fans. And they did for most part. To them, Jackson is a hero. A maverick filmmaker with an unique vision and the drive and mental toughness to accomplish things previously undreamed of. Jackson and his fellowship of collaborators reminded Hollywood on how to make really major cinema. They also put New-Zealand firmly on the map as country where movies and special effects are dreamt up.

Because special effects are Jackson’s big thing. He discovered the magic of filmmaking when he was nine years old and saw the original King Kong on television. Since that moment, he worked non-stop on creating special effects in his garage and eventually he completed a whole movie (Bad Taste) which became a cult hit. However successful his career got since, he never stopped aiming to satisfy that nine year old boy. In making The Lord of the Rings, he focused on making movies that he would enjoy himself. Even though he is a brilliant, technical craftsman and storyteller, his youthful energy is what really catapults his films from merely good to terrific.

With The Lord of the Rings, he wrote movie history. Anything you can imagine perfectly captures this history of how an outsider succeeded wildly in Hollywood. Much like the heroes of his story, he did it by staying true to himself. He may not have had to face the horrific challenges Frodo had, but at times it certainly came close. Sometimes you need an unlikely hero to change the course of history. And very much like his protagonist Frodo Baggins, Peter Jackson certainly fits that bill.

George Lucas, Not Guilty

Today, on the premiere of ‘The Last Jedi’ – the eighth official episode in the Star Wars saga, creator of Star Wars – Mr. George Lucas – stands trial. He is accused of being a hack.

The prosecution (The internet)
Of the many things that catch blame for ‘ruining’ the Star Wars prequels – Jar Jar Binks, midi-chlorians, almost every line of dialogue George Lucas wrote for Padme and Anakin – there is one moment that makes almost every fan cringe, no matter how dedicated. We’re talking about Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader, literally the jumping-off point of the entire Star Wars saga.

In this moment, Vader learns that he has lost his wife and unborn children…and has been transformed into, like, a Space Robocop. So, what does he do? He breaks free from his shackles and lets out the now infamous, “NOOOOOOO!” that felt like it had a Kanye-level of autotune to it. It felt ridiculous when it should have been the defining moment of the prequels. What the hell was Lucas thinking?

The defense (Johnny Cochran)

This defense will be short and easy. This is the man who gave us Star Wars after all. The original Star Wars films still form the best trilogy ever created hands down. Even the third part – which is never the best in any series – is in case of Star Wars nearly perfect: ‘Return of the Jedi’ contains some of the best stuff of the series. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013) gave each of the three original films the maximum rating of four stars (read his awesome reviews here, here, and here).

So why is Lucas so hated despite being the man who gave us Darth Vader, Yoda, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker amongst many others? Because he also gave us Jar Jar Binks? Because he writes remarkably terrible love scenes? So what? Didn’t the other great filmmakers of his generation make similar mistakes? Francis Ford Coppola cast his daughter in ‘The Godfather: Part III’ and it nearly ruined the film. Yet, he is never criticized in the way Lucas is.

Statistically, after sunshine comes rain. Lucas gave us the best trilogy ever made, so the prequels were never going to top that. Still, that is no excuse for not making better movies. But are they really so terrible?

Episode I: The Phantom Menace is the worst, most will agree. But look at what it does have: the pod race, Darth Maul (IMDb-poll names him the second greatest SW villain after Vader), and the return of many great characters: Palpatine, Yoda and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor is perfect casting as a young Alec Guinness). There is also fun foreshadowing going on of all that is to come. Finally, the world building is spectacular and unforgettable.

Roger Ebert – who gave ‘The Phantom Menace’ 3,5 stars out of 4 – concluded: “Mostly I was happy to drink in the sights on the screen, in the same spirit that I might enjoy ‘Metropolis’, ‘Forbidden Planet’, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, ‘Dark City’ or ‘The Matrix’. The difference is that Lucas’ visuals are more fanciful and his film’s energy level is more cheerful; he doesn’t share the prevailing view that the future is a dark and lonely place.”

Episode II: Attack of the Clones – The greatest weakness is the love story, we can be clear about this. But it would be a shame to let that ruin the whole movie experience, because episode II has a lot going for it. First of all, it has a terrific Raymond Chandler-style mystery plot. Also, there is a great sense of urgency; the battle for the galaxy has now really begun. And the filmmaking in general – the editing, sound, production design, music, etc – are all A-grade. There are few filmmakers with such imagination, and with the ability to bring it to the screen, like Lucas.

As for villains, usually the best thing about a Star Wars-film, I don’t like Jango Fett so much, but Count Dooku – played the uncanny Christopher Lee – is terrific, and so is his lightsaber duel with Yoda. The dark side is really prevailing now and Lucas effectively uses the principles of Eastern Philosophy to craft the story development. People may not like Hayden Christensen, but what is actually accomplished by his performance is that we get an uneasy feeling about Anakin. The air gets thick in the confrontational scenes. Unlike Obi-Wan – who was the perfect Jedi-student in episode I – Anakin is the pupil you always have to worry about. And these foreshadowing shots with Palpatine are grand. His quest to the dark side is thus very well handled.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith  Episode III is a return to the classic space opera style that launched the series, and many agree that Lucas really approaches old trilogy greatness here. In the saga’s darkest chapter, Anakin really journeys to the dark side under the influence of the demonic Palpatine. Aside from the infamous ‘Noooo’-moment, episode III is a thoroughly exciting and enjoyable film with some of the best action sequences in the series.

And so, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if George Lucas is a hack, then Chewbacca lives on Endor, and therefore you must acquit! The defense rests.

So let us all shut the hell up and enjoy Lucas’ legacy.