A comparitive critique by guest writer Dr. Albert Oxford, PhD
*Note for the American readers: this is the a part of the article before the main article starts.
What you see below is not opinion. I have become the world's preeminent voice on popular culture (and American cinema in particular), rising above the dreck of entertainment journalism like an evolved legfish first crawling out of the stench-laden slime of ancient Earth, for good reason. I have written over a hundred tomes* on film and I can assure you that one of the aforementioned trilogii is superior to another, and the third is superior still (though not necessarily superior to the first). It is demonstrable and quantifiable.
If you feel a particular affection for one or more of these series (though strange, as I assure you that none of these films love you) there is only a 33.33% chance that you will not be offended by the outcome of this study, as only one of the three can win. Now, I have not hidden in my previous writings my utter personal loathing for these film franchises but obviously that does not disqualify me from comparing one to another, just as, under certain circumstances, one may have to choose between eating all the fur off a dead elk and, say, giving a nude massage to one's own mother.
Are you intellectually prepared for such difficult truths? Well, read on anyway.
Einstein's Theory of Relativity states that one object only has certain qualities when in relation to another. Thus, a headless man is only headless in comparison with an equivalent headed specimen. This is why the headless man's mass will be transformed into energy should he be sent back in time at a velocity greater than light, whereas the headed man's will not.
In the same manner, a film can only be said to be "good" or "bad" when in quantifiable comparison to other films. A visit to any fan message board will prove this to be amply true:
LegolasPhan@ringbearer.net: hahaha!!11 rotk DESTROYED matrix revlutions fagzs 11 oscer nominations how many did u get LOL
firstname.lastname@example.org: EPISODE3IS GONG2ROXR YR opea.mdauieozzz!!!11 spzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
As you see, even the illiterate know that when weighing the quality of the great sci-fi/fantasy trilogies they must always contest with each other as it is physically impossible for any fan to state that he enjoyed The Matrix: Revolutions unless he equally disapproved of Return of the King and thus has means for comparison.
Contrary to uneducated popular belief, however, we can measure which of the popular sci-fantasy (or "geek") trilogies is superior through a defined set of scientific criteria that are very real and quantifiable (i.e., Harrison Ford's performance in the original Star Wars trilogy scored a 8.4 on the Segal Revised Charisma Scale, Elijah Wood scored only a 2.6) and such methods we have employed herein. Let us begin.
Criteria No. 1 - Source Material
George Lucas' epic is based on the Akira Kurosawa film The Seven Samurai, a 1954 Japanese masterpiece wherein a team of 19th Century Samurai free a princess by attacking a space station.
Lucas improves on this original work of genius in every way, and scored a remarkable 9.6 on the Swayze Adaptation Analysis (1994 Revision).
The Lord of the Rings films are based on a 1978 Ralph Bakshi cartoon which used the method of rotoscoping (wherein actors are forced to wear thick, colorful paint on their skin in order to give a cartoonish pen-and-ink appearance). The most memorable fact about that production is that four actors were killed in the process, all succumbing to paint poisoning and/or neck injuries due to their ponderous wigs and fake beards which were made from a dense industrial-grade plaster, some weighing more than 120 pounds.
Unfortunately the spirit of the original tale is undone by the superfluous sequels (the original ended with the One Ring unbroken and Mordor still in power, conveying Bakshi's lone passionate lifelong belief that midgets are not to be trusted with important tasks).
The Matrix is based on the 1968 East German play Wirklichkeit ist eine Illusion, also lassen Sie uns sprechen Rtsel, Eintragfaden-Polizei und Tanzkampf ("Reality is an Illusion, so Let Us Speak Riddles, Shoot Police and Dancefight"). The original live production ended with a stunning dance sequence (set to Wagner's Nightsong of the Gun Mechs) which the Wachowski brothers have set side in favor of a silly RoboCopesque sky-shooting fireworks display that resembles an inner-city New Year's Eve celebration from the year 2214.
Interestingly, the sentinels in the live production, which were wooden barrels with long links of sausages streaming out from behind, were much more terrifying than those in the film. I suppose CGI isn't everything, Hollywood.
Star Wars: 9.6.
The Lord of the Rings: 3.1
The Matrix: 1.7
Criteria No. 2 - Characters
Luke is the center of this universe, the lowly moisture farmer who is destined to be his people's savior. Like all of the trilogy's character names, Luke's is rich with symbolism (named Skywalker for his enormous height). Likewise Han Solo denotes his loner personality and the fact that he never flies with a copilot. Additionally, one can tell from Darth Vader's title just how many star systems he has 'vaded.
In the new trilogy, Anakin Skywalker portrays a damning indictment of technology's modern dehumanization of mankind through Hayden Christensen's lifeless, almost inhuman performance. There is a river of tragedy in every robotic line he utters, a horrific monotonal indication of his cyborgal fate.
There is no criticism to be had here; Lucas crafts a kind of dialogue in these films that many didn't previously think was possible.
Frodo is our hero here, the lowly hobbit farmer who is destined to be his people's savior. There was symbolism in the Frodo name, too, as in the Bakshi original film the character sported a gigantic afro that was, in fact, his primary weapon in battle. A number of factors, including technical limitations and racism, caused Peter Jackson to ditch that look for 'Frodo after just a few test screenings.
Unfortunately, this robbed the character of any emotional resonance he may have had with the audience. From Jackson's insulting portrayal of women - Legolas is reduced to simplistic, mindless interjections ("a diversion!") and decorating the scenery with her beauty - to his dwarf who, in every single sentence, mentions the fact that he is a dwarf, Jackson's cast of characters is a group one would long to never meet in real life.
Neo is the main protagonist, the lowly code farmer who is destined to be his people's savior. Keanu Reeves' performance as this courageous mentally challenged man is an inspiration to P.C. gamers everywhere who have had their vocabularies destroyed by monitor radiation. His tragic bout of gamma-induced impotence in mid-intercourse during Reloaded, and the look of erectile frustration on his face, was heart-wrenching.
The rest of the casting leaves much to be desired, with the only bright spot being Monica Bellucci in both sequels. Her performances in the two films are a pair of ripe, full, well-rounded portrayals of firm, voluptuous womanhood that will go down as as two of the breast roles in recent mammary.
Scores, based on the Guttenberg Character Likability Graph:
Star Wars: 8.4.
The Lord of the Rings: 1.6
The Matrix: 6.1
Criteria No. 3 - Story Themes and Symbolism
Cold, gut-tangling paranoia. That's the key to the Star Wars tales. The central meaning in both trilogies is our modern need for protection and safety against the cold, uncaring horror of existence. The films unflinchingly portray disaster after disaster for all who are left unprotected for even a moment; we see women's need to constantly be protected (and rescued) by men, man's own need to always be protected and kept aloft by catwalk railings in a world where they are still millennia away from invention, a space station exhaust shaft's need to be protected by a hard covering or at least some protective grating to stop foreign objects.
It is a theme that resonates in these new, dangerous times unlike any other. Who is protecting your exhaust shaft, America?
As if this were somehow not enough, Lucas shocks us with a point of view that is almost heresy in a 21st Century USA. Lucas believes it is justified to destroy the inhabitants of a large building, if it facilitates the means of those called to martydom by The Force. Further, aggressive military action is never to be unilateral and pre-emptive. Han Solo knows he is in mortal danger in the Cantina scene... but he waits until Greedo fires before responding with deadly force. This is a lesson a certain American President could learn.
Experts have debated the symbolic meaning of Bakshi's golden ring, around which the entire trilogy is based. What great threat to the planet is embodied in that ring of evil? Some say it symbolizes American nuclear proliferation, others say American Capitalism. Some speculate that these tales are a warning against American Human cloning, American cultural homogeny, or even environmental ruin at the hand of Americans.
From analyzing Bakshi's other works (such as the Brad Pitt animated feature Cool World, where the world is almost destroyed due to cartoon and human characters engaging in sexual relations) we can make this meaning clear:
American civil rights activist Martin Luther King, in his famous 1968 speech, pleaded to "let freedom ring" across the land, "ringing" in a new era of racial harmony. In Bakshi's film, we have that very "ring" in our hands, the "ring" of freedom and racial equality, the "ring" that will let every white and black child play with race-blind eyes.
Frodo's mission is to destroy the ring.
The Orcs are to be wiped out, not integrated into society. The elves are to slowly die off, not to be merged with the world of man. You look for the central symbolism and story theme of these films and I say we find it here. Let freedom ring, Dr. King. Let freedom ring, from the hills to the valleys, across the countryside. Let freedom ring, until a midget melts it in the fires of Hell itself.
The Matrix: 0.0
Star Wars: 7.9
The Lord of the Rings: 9.8
Criteria No. 4 - Visual Effects
We're in elite company on this list, where immersive special effects are merely a starting point and not a grand achievement to be gawked and drooled at. Further, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Thus, we will judge these three films only by their worst effects shot, the one scene that takes you out of the world of the story and jerks you jarringly into a world where you are a lone, sexless man in a movie theater, bulges of fat stretching the seams of your C-3PO costume to the breaking point whilst tears of self-loathing bead on your butter-stained cheeks.
In Lord of the Rings there are but two failures to note. The first and most obvious weakness is the CGI Gollum, specifically the physics and fabric movement of his loincloth. Gollum is seen climbing up and down cliffs in the garment and not once are his genitals seen falling out. I can attest to the real-world failing of this popular loincloth design (often called a Siamese Dongcurtain) as I had to wear one during my service with the RAF in the 1950's and even a trifling English wind would make my most masculine of secrets public.
It is a shame that prudish prohibitions caused Jackson to shy away from realism, disrupting the immersion of his CGI character in the process. Bakshi held closer to reality in his original vision.
Secondly, during the massive seige of Gondor, the gates of the city are attacked by a gigantic fire-breathing wolf-like beast.
In at least three overhead shots, however, the cart and wheels carrying the "beast" are plainly visible, as are the obese stage hands who are pushing it across the lawn.
It takes a sharp eye, but still the trilogy loses significant points here.
No complaints. The rubber Neo dummy the good guys use to distract the gang of Agent Smiths in Reloaded is rendered in meticulous detail.
The original trilogy was infamously plagued with problems with the R2-D2 character, played by a dwarf in an motorized puppet. The first is a ridiculous scene 22 minutes into Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo is running toward his ship with R2-D2 in tow (literally, as a hidden wire around Harrison Ford's waist was being used to propel the droid forward). If you look closely, the droid falls over and is then dragged along the ground while a tiny dwarf hand reaches out from a hatch, grasping desperately for a hold while screams echo from within.
Later in the same film it can be observed during the Degobah sequence that a large lump of feces falls out from the R2 costume in mid-scene. Finally, and perhaps most disturbing, is a shot during the climactic space battle of Return of the Jedi when the droid's dome is struck by a laser blast and a fountain of human blood sprays across the side of the X-Wing.
The other nagging effects problem was the non-working mouth on the Darth Vader mask, a malfunction that the effects team was unable to fix through the original trilogy. The character never recovers from this, as you wind up with an unmoving visage unable to express emotion or even to indicate when he, rather than another character, is speaking. This also caused Lucas to cut a scene where Vader bites Luke's finger off.
There are also at least two occasions in the original trilogy when the hinged jaw piece simply falls off, and the other actors are forced to continue the scene while Darth covers his face with his cape. A DVD freeze frame reveals the error, though few likely caught it during the theatrical run.
The Lord of the Rings: 4.6
The Matrix: 10.0
Star Wars: 6.2.
Criteria No. 5 - Ghost Swordfighting Scene
A sci-fantasy epic's narrative is only as strong as its ghost/human swordfighting sequence. These, of all the scenes, require the most skillful storytelling hand lest the audience notice the sheer magnitude of the premise's ridiculousness.
Reloaded's epic swashbuckle between Morpheus and the ghostly Twins is probably the most realistically-depicted of the three, as Morpheus' spastic whiffing of his blade through the two villains' non-bodies is about what such a confrontation would amount to.
Further, our protagonist changes tactics after only 200 or so failed sword-blows, realizing that the only way to kill a spirit is to, of course, set it on fire.
Aragorn tops Morpheus' feat by quantity rather than quality, challenging an entire army of the dead to a duel to the death that he has, in a way, already won.
Here Jackson deftly maneuvers his characters out of this hopeless standoff between immovable force and nonexistent object. Aragorn uses his powers of persuasion to great effect, promising the dead army commander that, if they will risk possible death on behalf of Gondor, he will reward them with death.
Lucas' task was doubly difficult as screenwriting rules demanded a second ghost-sword duel, since there are six films in the series. The first comes in A New Hope, where Obi-Wan is revealed at the end of his duel with Vader to be not a man at all, but a spirit doomed to roam the Earth. When Vader's saber passes through the emptiness of Obi-Wan's body, the surprise actually causes the Sith lord's black jaw to drop until it clatters to the floor.
The second ghostfight is in Attack of the Clones, where Count Dooku duels Yoda, who we saw pass away two films prior. Yoda uses his unbody to great advantage, flipping through the air in a way that only the dead can.
Scores, based on the Snipes/Soulcutt Scale:
The Matrix: 6.5
The Lord of the Rings: 8.1
Star Wars: 9.9
We have our data. We've factored in all the additional variables, the Death Star vs. The Tower of Mordor, Yoda vs. Gollum, Darth Maul vs. Dozer. We have our answer, there is a best.
You have been warned...
preparing film comparison results
supplemental cinema enjoyometrics:
>factor 23: legolas/elephant vs. yoda/dooku vs. wraith/mattress
>factor 28b: cadillacs vs. speeder bikes vs. quickly moving feet
>factor 005g: chewbacca vs. bill the pony vs. morpheus
>factor 77: leia's gold bikini vs. persephone's dress vs. legolas' pantssuit
>factor 12x: no monkeys vs. no monkeys vs. no monkeys
>factor 994: hobbit manhug vs. cave bare boobdance vs. luke/leia incestkiss
>factor 999: the animatrix vs. the ewok adventure vs. lord of the rings 1986 TV series starring tom selleck
>preparing results display, graphing code into tri-axis Tomm/Wopat Film Criterial Gradient (1992 revised scale)#
As you can see, the results are striking.
Figure 1.2 (above) shows us a preliminary mean score of:
Star Wars: 8.2
The Lord of the Rings: 8.7
The Matrix: 8.5
As you can see, Lord of the Rings wins the day.
Of course, the final criteria must rest not in quality but in quantity. The prolithic nature of Lucas' work, allowing him to produce twice as many films as the other two franchises, is nothing short of astounding and this superhuman level of production most be accounted for in the name of accuracy if not fairness. Let us cycle the volume factor through the same set of algorythms:
The adjusted scores:
Star Wars: 14.2
The Lord of the Rings: 11.7
The Matrix: 11.5
The surprise here is not just that Star Wars triumphs, but in the ease and magnitude of its victory.
As a side note, in light of my past hard words on the subject of these trilogies, one might find it strange that I awarded the scores displayed above. Please remember that the scores are out of a possible maximum of 1,422. Needless to say, I intend to never watch any of these films again and I consider the matter settled for all time henceforth.
-Dr. Albert Oxford, PhD.
London Film Institute
We Hates the Fat Hobbit: A critique of the Samwise Gamgee Character. Frederick Nelson, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. 352 pp.
Bakshi's Vision: Inventing Middle Earth from Nothing. David J. Amberson, New York: Michelson Publishing, 1980. 244 pp.
Where's the Beef: Quantifying the Missing Elements from Gollum's Loincloth. Vincent Friel, Loincloth Today. May 13, 2000. pp. 5-27.
Mommy, Does a Kung Fuist Float: Physics Flaws in The Matrix. Marcus Verhoven. Birmingham, Alabama Press, 2002. 275 pp.
The Turner Diaries. Andrew Macdonald. New York, White Knights Press, 1968. 224 pp.
Straight From the Cow's Ass: Film Flops of the 21st Century. Michael Medved. New York, Bantam Press, 2002. 352 pp.
How to Write a Screenplay in 72 Hours. George Lucas. New York, Skywalker Press, 1989. 205 pp.
All My Heroes are White. James Pinkerton. Toronto, Beaver Press, 1993. 857 pp.
Cleansing the Gene Pool: In Defense of Genocide. James Pinkerton. Toronto, Beaver Press, 1996. 994 pp.
My Finger on the Trigger: Why Gandhi Deserved Death. James Pinkerton. Toronto, Beaver Press, 2001. 1,206 pp.