In Michael Bay’s first Transformers film, there’s a scene about 90 minutes in where the Autobots are at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. They’re not training for battle or clobbering the Decepticons—they’re just standing around talking about what their next move is. The conversation only lasts for a few minutes, but feels much longer due to the still camerawork and cybernetic jargon about Allspark cubes and what not. There’s only so much one can take of giant alien robots chatting in a circle before it all becomes a little silly.
Bay’s Transformers series falters for many other reasons, but the scene’s lesson applies to any piece of science fiction or fantasy, even one of much better quality: when characters are strategizing, the writers should keep the dialogue as brief as possible, or at least have it occur on the move. That’s because when a bunch of made-up terminology gets thrown in the air, it quickly melts into gobbledygook when the viewer has too much time to think about it. But if it’s kept short, or at least protected by a buffer of picturesque moving scenery or the threat of an approaching enemy, it goes down easy. It’s why fans rarely complain about the Mines of Moria sequence in The Fellowship Of The Ring—which has more exposition than most people remember—and everyone takes a piss break during the Council of Elrond.
Unfortunately, The Shannara Chronicles backloads the final quarter of “Fury” with lots of planning and summarizing. In the Hugo Weaving role is John Rhys-Davies, who, as King Eventine, must oversee a council to decide if his daughter Amberle (newly escorted back to Arbolon by Wil) should be allowed to guard the dying Ellcrys once again. The entire scene trudges along with this type of sleepy sentence: “The Ellcrys will bear a seed. That seed must be carried by one of The Chosen to a place called Safehold. There, it will be immersed in the Bloodfire. Only then can it be returned, and the Ellcrys can be reborn.”
The history-book dialogue wouldn’t be such a slog if the council’s decision didn’t take so long, or if—God forbid—they simply let Amberle reclaim her post since she’s the only one of The Chosen who’s still alive. But economical storytelling be damned, we get 10 minutes of everyone hemming and hawing in the throne room, and even by the episode’s end, there’s not a complete sense of finality. Instead, it’s decided that Amberle must enter a door in the Ellcrys to see if it will allow her to go on the mission, or just kill her. In other words, that’s 10 minutes of a bunch of elves deciding if it’s okay to let the tree decide if Amberle will be permitted to save it. I get that a lot of this comes from The Elfstones Of Shannara (though not all of it), but what makes for a good novel doesn’t always make for good television. We’re now three episodes in, and the main characters haven’t even embarked on their central quest yet.
And that’s the big flaw with The Shannara Chronicles right now: it spends too much time on the stationary moments of the story while shortchanging the dynamic ones. On Amberle and Wil’s journey back to Arbolon, for instance, the discovery of another vision-plagued elf named Bandon (Marcus Vanco) arrives so fast that it becomes confusing when he and Wil have an argument later on. The way the former begs the latter not to return to Shady Vale implies there’s a deep bond between them, some sort of longstanding trust that the series never bothers to show during their travels together. Sure, Bandon can possibly see the future, but writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar never build up the characters’ relationship to the point where Wil’s faith in him feels plausible.
On the flip side, Amberle and Wil’s captivity in the Rover camp—a stretch positioned to be a tense, action-heavy centerpiece of the episode—moves along too slowly due to the strained acting of two of the cast members. As the adopted Rover Eretria, Ivana Baquero doesn’t do her dog-eat-dog platitudes any favors by emoting on her pauses instead of her lines, and Poppy Drayton’s Amberle remains stuck in a quicksand pool of eyebrow- and mouth-acting. Out of the young performers that serve as The Shannara Chronicles’ weight-bearing triangle, Austin Butler as Wil continues to best navigate the challenging material with briskness and natural emotion. When he finally unlocks the power of the Elfstones after a skeletally winged Fury invades the camp, it’s a true hero moment—his nervous bravery calcifies into actual fearlessness as his eyes ice over and he calls upon the stones to blast the demon into ashes. It’s here that you believe he could become a Frodo Baggins, a Katniss Everdeen, a Luke Skywalker. It’s here that you believe he’ll conquer whatever quest lies ahead.
But so many of the other roles feel lost in their own world of the Four Lands, unable to convey strength and courage, even as we’re told they possess those very things in spades. Hopefully The Shannara Chronicles will give them more opportunities to prove these characteristics through dialogue and action sequences that are active, not passive. It’s hard for any character to come off as badass when they’re droning on and on inside a throne room.
- Wil Ohmsford now holds the superlative of “TV Character Whose Buffness Most Comically Contrasts With Their Personality.” Previous title-holders include Cedric Daniels from The Wire.
- The demon graphics still look fake, but at least the creature design is cool.
- Apparently Rovers are into tribal tattoos.
- “Too human for the elves. Too elven for the humans.”
- “Your ears are turning red again.”
The Spoilers Of Shannara
- After sifting through the comments last week, I decided to reread The Sword Of Shannara in concurrence with Elfstones to see how much of a Lord Of The Rings ripoff it truly is. And holy Hell, you all were right. No Tolkien character remains un-aped. Even the Watcher In the Water gets a counterpart with the Mist Wraith.
- I also remarked how Terry Brooks rarely goes into great physical detail with his characters and surroundings in the original Shannara trilogy. While that’s true of Elfstones, I’m actually floored by how much visual text there is in Sword. Brooks’ descriptions are quite lovely, and the one true thing that really sets the work apart from LOTR.
- Book hints at Shannara being a future-Earth: nothing in Elfstones so far, but—as a few of you pointed out—Sword does feature the specter of an ancient king who appears to be carrying a flashlight, even though no one refers to it as such. I wonder how much Brooks actually knew about the big reveal ahead of time when he first started the series (I’ve read different things in interviews, which leads me to believe not much).
- Is Bandon an actual character from the books? I haven’t come across him yet, and I feel like I should have if he’s there.