Ever since director Peter Jackson started shooting the $270 million ”Lord of the Rings” trilogy in his native New Zealand a millennium ago (October 1999, to be exact), New Line Cinema has kept the project swathed in secrecy. That’s not to say the films lack buzz. In January, the studios’ first Internet preview in January was downloaded by 1.7 million people in 24 hours, and fansites have rabidly recorded both major developments (such as the casting of Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett) and minutiae (like the news flash when Tyler spoke Elvish, the language of the elves, on ”Late Night with Conan O’Brien”).
Yet the look and tone of the film remained anyone’s guess. Until now. On May 16, the studio screened some 20 plus minutes of footage for several hundred journalists at New York City’s Sony Lincoln Square Theatre. (On May 10, reporters at the Cannes Film Festival saw the same scenes, and the resulting coverage nearly overshadowed the movies in competition.)
Herewith, the details — SO STOP READING if you want a clean slate when the first film, ”Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” hits theaters Dec. 19.
The footage started with a greeting from director Jackson, who was sitting in a horse drawn cart guided by actor Ian McKellen in full wizard regalia, the first scene showed McKellen’s Gandalf arriving at the home in the hillside of Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). The height difference (the Shire dwelling Hobbits are supposed to grow no taller than three and a half feet) is achieved unobtrusively: Through clever camerawork, Holm looks to be the size of a child, while McKellen stretches gauntly to the ceiling. The scene establishes McKellen’s Gandalf as a calm, world weary foil to Holm’s frenetic Baggins, clipping about his cozy Hobbit hole, fetching tea for his old friend.
Cut to: Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday party, where we glimpse Elijah Wood as Frodo, dancing amidst swirling fireworks. Bilbo performs his vanishing act, astonishing the crowd as he disappears before them using his invisibility producing magical Ring. What follows are quick flashes introducing the Fellowship: Wood’s fellow Hobbits (Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, and Billy Boyd), humans Aragorn and Boromir (Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies).
The ”Rings”’ plot, for those who haven’t dusted off their J.R.R. Tolkien, is a classic quest: To save Middle Earth, Frodo and the Fellowship must take the all powerful Ring back into the enemy teritory where it was forged and destroy it in the blazing fires there. But that’s no easy task, because evil forces are in pursuit.
The centerpiece of the footage was 14 minutes of the Fellowship’s dangerous trek through the Mines of Moria. The group discovers a vast underground chamber strewn with the skeletal remains of dead warriors, who have been killed off by the evil Orcs. One Hobbit accidentally knocks a piece of armor into a deep well. The group waits, hushed, as the armor clangs violently to the bottom. Silence. Relief. But then: Rumbling. The Moria Orcs are coming! A pack of the troll like monsters breaks through the barricaded door, followed by a cave troll, a massive, stony CGI creation. Arrows fly, swords flash, and Orcs spew black blood.