This is part of an ongoing weekly series called “Freeze Frame,” where we break down our very favorite sci-fi/fantasy/adventure moments – the scenes that we look forward to, that remind us why we so love this job. As you might guess, such discussions are riddled with spoilers. So consider yourself warned. (See previous Freeze Frame features.)
I spent a good chunk of the weekend complaining about Clash of the Titans. I so wanted the film to be good – was so eager for a juicy little Kraken brawl. And then the whole thing just felt flimsy. Lots of flash and special effects, but nothing that really sunk its claws into you. As I wrote in my initial reaction, the gods have never looked more real or mattered less.
But over the weekend, I tried to really parse my emotions: Why didn’t the Kraken wow me more? What more do I demand from my monster villains? Perhaps the answer lies in a scene that I felt hit the nail on the head: Gandalf vs. The Balrog in Fellowship of the Rings:
Isn’t this one of the all-time great human-mystic-monster showdowns? Maybe the best head-to-head monster moment in movie history? For starters, the filmmakers have taken the time to make us actually care about the human characters. There’s that. And then you have some seriously committed actors, like Sean Bean and Ian McKellen, who can convey a thing or two about shock and awe.
Add all that to the fact that we have an awesome setting – this shadowy cavern that plays a huge part in building up the anticipation. Well before we see the Balrog, we are immersed in the echoed bellows of a giant beast and the approaching red glow of a demon on fire. This is the way that you suggest something epic is drawing near. This is the way you get people excited.
Then there’s the way the scene plays against our expectations. The group of heroes stands tall as Gandalf explains the history of the demon, and we think for a moment that they might hold their ground and fight. But then Gandalf turns, and the warriors sprint in a panic. Forget shaky-cam hand-to-hand combat; this battle is a lopsided affair. And what I never fully appreciated before was the way in which their sprint for safety actually causes this scene to become a chase sequence without the audience ever having seen the enemy.
There’s plenty of action here, but Peter Jackson is carefully holding off on the big reveal, building up the tension instead based solely on the images rattling around in our imagination. We’re confronted with the fire, the growl, the twitchy camera that pans up as we realize the Balrog is a whole lot bigger than we were expecting. And the dark lighting here always keeps the full form of this monster cloaked in mystery. Our heroes are panicking, and yet we still have no idea what’s chasing them. This is suspense at its best.
Add up all this mystery and misdirection and you arrive at a standoff that’s genuinely startling. Jackson turns away from the blurry Balrog to follow the hobbits sprinting across the foot bridge, moving the camera with them and away from the monster. And then in a slow pan back to the left, we see the stark disparity in this confrontation, between monster and wizard. By moving into the distance, Jackson crystallizes the scale of the battlefield.
Gandalf may be a powerful magic man, but this towering, fiery foe could squash him like a bug. And it all builds up to the moment that the white-haired warrior – half defiant, half taunting – declares “You Shall Not Pass!” Frodo looks back in terror, and we realize this is more than just an act of courage; it’s an act of self-sacrifice.
So take note, Clash of the Titans filmmakers: This is how you handle drama – molding it around characters who are making life-changing decisions, against a foe that they (and we) can’t fully comprehend. The stakes increase exponentially, far faster that we can keep up with, and that’s called thrilling filmmaking. We arrive at a life-defining decision for Gandalf even before we realize that’s where we’re heading, involving a monster that exists more in our mind than on the screen. There’s subtlety in all that chaos, artistry in all that action.
Clash of the Titans didn’t have it, but from almost the first scene Lord of the Rings did. Less focused on size or speed, Rings was a spectacle interested first and foremost in stoking surprise. That’s why it is among cinema’s greatest trilogies; it kept us on our toes.
As for Titans, you could see the surprises coming from a mile away.
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