Special Effects: A-
I guess it may be time for me to stop expressing amazement when a movie is released in 3D and it’s actually done well. They Shall Not Grow Old marks the second time in about as many months that I saw a film I would insist is best seen in 3D (the other being, amazingly, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). It was perhaps inevitable that technology would advance soon enough to make it worthwhile in the most talented of hands.
A lot of 3D remains a waste of time, mind you — especially if it’s a blockbuster retrofitted with it just to put a pointless premium on ticket prices. Ten years ago, Avatar worked better in 2D, at least in my opinion — most everyone else was wowed by its 3D effects. Perhaps James Cameron’s upcoming sequels will push the format forward by another leap. Given his less than stellar record as a script writer, I’m not holding my breath for a transcendent experience.
So how does They Shall Not Grow Old fit into all this, then? First of all, it’s the first truly impressive documentary I’ve seen in 3D since Pina (2011) — and, like that film, I must stress that the full effect of the experience won’t be nearly the same on a home television screen, I don’t care how large your screen is. Holding the reigns this time is director Peter Jackson, who has a pretty good history of jaw-dropping, cutting-edge special effects. Well, he did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, anyway. He went in some slightly misguided directions with King Kong (2005) and really went overboard stretching The Hobbit into a trilogy (2012, 2013, 2014), with seriously diminishing returns.
With this far shorter, far more tightly edited documentary — clocking in at a trim 99 minutes — Jackson really gets back on track. It’s cut down from 100 hours of original footage of World War I, archived by London’s Imperial War Museum, which asked him if he could do something original and unique with it. Smartly leaving out any interviews with historians and instead including audio exclusive to remastered tapes of soldiers who lived it, the footage and the testimonials are a visual and oral history exclusively by those who were there.
That would have been compelling on its own, but Jackson’s film crew went many extra miles in restoring this footage, from correcting the wide variety of film speeds (at that time, all camera footage was shot using a hand crank), to cleaning up the scratching on the pictures, to — perhaps most importantly — colorizing all of the footage from in the trenches.
Some of you might think, Big deal. I’ve seen colorized movies before. Not like this, you haven’t. This is very detailed, painstaking work. Now, I won’t say it’s perfect, and I will even say that the effects here will easily be seen as dated not very many years from now. More projects of this sort will be far more convincing as these techniques develop. As it stands now, this is still unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. In essence, it’s both imperfect and amazing. This footage brings a vividness to the memory of the first World War not seen in decades.
And, given how much World War II overshadows it historically in virtually every single way, it’s kind of easy to forget the true, global significance of World War I — or, as it was known at the time, “The Great War.” It lasted from 1914 to 1918, so it can take a moment to register: oh, right — that war ended a hundred years ago. As it happens, production of They Shall Not Grow Old started in 2014, the centennial anniversary of the war’s start; production finished on the centennial of its finish. This movie is very well timed.
It begins with the naive hopes of incredibly young men volunteering to serve, many so eager to join that they would lie about being the minimum age of nineteen — some of them as young as fifteen. In a sort of dark nod to The Wizard of Oz, the black and white converts to color when things get really horrible: the footage of life in the trenches. By the end of the war, disillusionment has long been set in; there is pointed commentary on there not being any particular celebration when the war was declared over. After all that death — much of which is seen here, a lot of it disturbing, hence the R rating — there is only exhaustion.
The overall effect, especially when seeing many shots of men posing for then-novel motion picture cameras, smiling and unsure of how to compose themselves, is haunting. This is a story of hope turning to naiveté turning to disillusionment turning to complete emotional detachment. I’m not sure Peter Jackson intended this, but it vaguely feels like a harbinger of things us as audiences already know is to come in the world for these people, their society.
The world has changed a truly massive amount in the past 100 years, more so than in any other century prior. Some things never change, though, and the horrors of war is one of them. They Shall Not Grow Old — the title itself more of a dark cloud than a nod to nostalgia — brings a historical record of it to life in a way never seen before.