DIGITAL WIZARDS OF THE 21ST CENTURY
Copyright 2001 www.variety.com

[ December 18th 2001 ]

There is an increasingly popular saying in the film industry - SFX sells. Cinema audiences are becoming more demanding in what they want to see on the big screen. As a result, special effects (SFX) have now taken on a much greater importance.

That is not to say that it has overtaken the plot as the most crucial part of a film. A SFX spectacular will still fail if the basic plot line is a dud. But SFX does sell and is creeping into the type of films you would not normally associate with such electronic wizardry. Notting Hill is a prime example. Do you remember the scene featuring Hugh Grant strolling down the Portobello Road through a year of changing seasons?

Other films and scenes that captured the imagination of cinema goers in recent years include giving Tom Cruise's face to Dougray Scott in M:I-2, or the headlesshorseman who marauded his way through Sleepy Hollow. Films that relied almost totally on SFX include The Mummy Returns, Tomb Raider, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Blade 2 and Resident Evil.

The likes of Sony Imageworks, Digital Domain, Industrial Light + Magic and the Computer Film Company are all involved in ground-breaking SFX projects. They are creating the type of fantasy worlds George Lucas pioneered with his Star Wars films and which have seemingly enjoyed a new lease of life this year withthe release of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and to a lesser extent the visual escapism of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Moulin Rouge.

But it is the first of the trilogy adapted from JRR Tolkien's books that looks the most likely to topple Star Wars from the top of the most pundits' lists of all-time fantasy and SFX movies.

Colin Kennedy, of film magazine Empire, believes the first in the trilogy is the best fantasy film ever made and is only likely to be topped by the next two in the series. "Fellowhip of the Ring is impeccably cast and constructed with both care and passion, this is a labour of love that never feels laboured," he added. "It is a genre movie and it's not perfect but it is a perfect genre movie."

It has certainly managed to out-hype the Harry Potter film, which has seen people flocking to the cinema since its first release. Billboards, newspapers, magazines and shops are full of anything and everything to do with the celluloid adaptation of Tolkien's classic story. It is a far cry from previous attempts to turn fantasy classics into blockbuster films. Krull is regarded as a wasted opportunity, while the likes of ArnoldSchwarzenegger's Conan The Barbarian and the Jim Henson-directed Labyrinth, also failed to satisfy. Ridley Scott's Legend is the prime example of an SFX spectacular let down by a feeble plot.

Earlier this year, another attempt at making fantastic fantasy stumbled with a film version of the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings have succeeded where these have failed,however, with the Tolkien epic looking likely to provide the benchmark for years to come. Some websites devoted to the film and the books are polling subscribers about how many times they are likely to watch the film.

The general consensus seems to be between five and eight viewings, although quite a few diehards are confident of making 20 or more visits to the cinema. "It's a must-see event movie subject to repeat viewing by the book's most ardent devotees," says Emmanuel Levy, reviewer at www.screendaily.co.uk.

This rejuvenation of the sword and sorcery flick isn't just down to good source material. The terrorist attacks of September 11 changed the needs of film-goers. Films like Ridley Scott's violent war film Black Hawk Down were put back to make way for more easy-going entertainment.

The two films have even helped each other achieve success. While they were initially thought of as being in competition, discussion and comparison of the wizardly adventures has helped raise their profiles even more.

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