For me, the word “colorization” can’t help but bring up shudders of horror and memories of seeing Ted Turner essentially desecrate classic films in the name of “modernization.” Even as a teenager, I knew there was something painfully wrong about It’s a Wonderful Life in color, especially the kind of color Turner slapped on it. But fear not, cinema purists, the masterful They Shall Not Grow Old is miles away from that kind of stupidity. Peter Jackson’s notion of updating old archive footage of World War I is an idea that could easily be seen as intrusive and fake, especially given that he’s also inserted sound effects and even dubbed dialogue. But what he’s done is create a truly breathtaking work of art that rises above any of those concerns as far as I’m concerned. He’s done what he wanted to do which is take us into the environment of WWI in a truly visceral and personal way. As he’s said, we’re mostly familiar with WWI only through a very flawed window of perception, a window through which we see blurry figures moving in herky-jerky motions in a storm of static. It’s hard to really connect to those people in some ways, but the treatment given to the film here allows us to see the soldiers of World War I as full human beings. The digital treatment, by the way, is astonishing. Not only is the colorization as well done as I’ve ever seen it done, but the clean-up done to restore clarity is amazing, making some of these films from a hundred years ago look as though they might have been shot last year. Jackson’s always been interested in ambitious projects and this one works brilliantly. It feels rather like a time-machine film, as if Jackson and a crew went back to World War I with modern cameras and filmed this documentary. Of course, the footage itself could easily eventually become a parlor trick if it wasn’t used well, but it is. The movie is kind of story structured, starting with the process of enlistment, moving on to training, then to the trenches, then to the battles, etc. You definitely feel like you’re following these men on a journey. It’s a smart decision to use entirely the voices of World War I veterans as narrators; they all come across as vibrant individuals, even though we never see them. They’re charming, often funny, bracingly honest and deeply emotional when they talk about their experiences and this really allows the movie to become truly harrowing at times as we hear about the awful experiences the soldiers went through. This really is a masterful, incredibly powerful film. It’s compelling, entertaining, deeply disturbing, sometimes harrowing and, ultimately, humanizing. It's a film of deep empathy, a film that communicates that empathy strongly because that empathy was its very genesis. Jackson wanted to take us back in time; and he’s done it. 4 stars.
tl;dr – astounding technical feat is the foundation of this awesome documentary, but the great storytelling and human drama is what hits home in a powerful, moving way. 4 stars.