The No-Good Very Nasty Remastering of The Lord of the Rings

Look, I see why Peter Jackson did it. Why he rereleased, in December of last year, his Lord of the Rings trilogy, along with The Nasty Hobbitses—as I like to call them, channeling Gollum—in so-called “4K Ultra HD” (a redundancy). It’s a very 21st-century-filmmaker thing to do, this remastering business. Enrich the colors, sharpen the images, and your films hold up down through the ages. It’s practically a moral obligation, a question of clarity, of being clear, and if you can clarify Legolas by pumping an extra 10 million pixels into his perfect Elven pores, which comes out to something like 100 billion photons, all twinkling immortally through the cosmic sweep of spacetime, why then, shouldn’t you?
If there’s anything humans demand in this life, it’s that. Greater clarity. Just speak clearly, you scream—at politicians, at therapists, at spouses. Also at me, for writing such a muddy first paragraph. God, it really is a mess. Sinful, even, so wordy and wasteful. If clarity, like its cousin cleanliness, is indeed next to godliness—and it is; the word, in the original Middle English, meant “glory, divine splendor”—then to be unclear is to be unethical. Or un-optical, as it were, since optics are the new ethics, at least in corporate America, where all they do is seek clarity on this, visibility into that. I mean, could I be any more clear?

More than likely, so let me try again. Here’s how I should have started this essay: In 2020, everybody went a little bit blind.

Because that was Covid for you, in a sense: a great, glaring crisis of seeing. Stuck inside, people couldn’t see as they were used to seeing. They couldn’t see their friends and family, except on screens. They couldn’t see movies or shows or plays, except on screens. And they couldn’t see when the crisis would end, not even on screens. If this simulation called reality was crackling along in hi-def in the Before Times, it dropped to something like standard definition in 2020, went all glitchy and grainy. Sorry, this connection stinks.
As the outside world blurred, though, the inside world up-rezzed. Screens were all that remained, so they got sharper, prettier, denser, clearer. Everything you’d think had a record-breaking year in sales, did: big-screen TVs, with their UHDs and HDRs; iPhone 12s, with their OLED displays and 5G speeds; Oculus Quest 2s, now with 50 percent more pixels. Salvation would be achieved through clarity, and there was no resolution better suited to the times than something called 4K.Not a new standard, of course; it began to show up in the mid-2010s. But “cocooning at home” during the pandemic, as one industry exec put it, “has accelerated interest in 4K.” Let’s recast the metaphor: HD was the caterpillar, and 4K the butterfly, bursting forth from its Covid chrysalis and crystallizing entertainment at quadruple the pixel density. The colors were dazzling, a truly heightened display. Classics like Lawrence of Arabia and the Hitchcock collection all the way down to every last Rambo and Resident Evil were 4K’d in 2020, not to mention video games, TV shows, and Top Gun to boot. Binge-watchers had been blind; now, they could see.
So look. I get why Peter Jackson capitalized on the accelerated interest. Why he remastered his trilogies in 4K, and just in time for the holiday season of a year in which an acute crisis of seeing collided with a chronic resolution fetish to produce a new market for the illusion of reality. But let me be clear. Crystal, if I can: What a no-good, anti-human, un-optical thing for this man to do.