It has been 20 years since the history of cinema has changed forever. No I’m not talking about the exit from Zoolander (although it was fair to guess that I was). The first installment of the now classic Lord of the Rings trilogy debuted in 2001, acting as a calming balm for a weary nation still reeling from the events of 9/11. Fellowship of the Ring was a release in the right place at the right time with all kinds of unintentional social relevance is a bit of conventional wisdom often relied on, but I host a podcast called Galaxy Brains, so conventional wisdom is not my thing.
2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the Lord of the Rings films, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So, every Wednesday of the year, we’ll be going back and forth again, examining how and why movies have remained modern classics. This is the year of the Polygon ring.
The time had certainly come for JRR Tolkien’s tale of perseverance, community, and strangely intense male friendship, but much more was at stake. The Lord of the Rings’ triumph was not just due to happy coincidence. The stars must have aligned in a number of ways in order for these films to reach millions of people over generations and be truly “epic.”
Like so many epic films before it, The Lord of the Rings trilogy demanded a level of tonal sincerity and commitment bordering on the superhuman. From the cinematography of Andrew Lesnie to the moving score of Howard Shore and the indelible performances of Ian McKellan, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood, every element of these films had to make you feel deeply. It’s less a movie and more of a miracle.
Grand epic cinema has graced movie screens since the Lord of the Rings trilogy ended in 2003 – Avatar, The black Knight, Avengers: Endgame – but none of them quite match the emotional honesty and old-fashioned “aw, shucks” vibe that Peter Jackson infused into the DNA of his greatest triumph. The definition of epic is more than the size of an exploding CG thing.
On this week’s Galaxy Brains, Jonah Ray and I are joined by the comedian, podcaster and writer of the epic sci-fi graphic novel. Bubble, Jordan morris. We’re going to tackle what made The Lord of the Rings films the most monumental works in movie history, and whether that success can continue into the culturally significant future.
Here is an excerpt from that conversation. Listen to the entire episode wherever you get your podcasts.
Dave: Jordan, you only recently watched Lord of the Rings and became a fan. This decade. This year. On TV. Why did you finally say, “OK, I’m going to watch the most successful movie franchise of all time”?
Jordan: You remember COVID-19, don’t you? So when that happened and I was alone in my apartment looking for long things to look at, I was like, “You know what, I’m going to try this Lord of the Rings again.” And I loved them. I just thought they were so beautiful, so sincere, and so well done and, you know, they definitely displayed a craftsmanship that these modern blockbuster kinds don’t really have. And I got so passionate about it that I went back and watched the fucking Hobbit movies. And I thought the Hobbits ruled.
Jonah: Even though I don’t like The Hobbit movies, I will watch them anyway. Because you are in this world and they rotate in so many convenient places. Most of the time it’s like, yeah, that’s it. It doesn’t matter if these are the real actors, but there are people disguised as characters on the same top of a mountain and they have a helicopter shot going up and you’re like, “Where is that?” what the fuck is it? And they actually had to bring these people there because it’s not CGI. And that’s why I’m so excited and I don’t care if this Amazon stuff is going to be good because I just wanna go back. I want to see this stuff again.
Jordan: It’s a freezing take, but it’s always worth mentioning that they did such a great job mixing CGI and some practical stuff. It’s like that scene in the first one where you walk in like the orcs’ birthing pit and they take a guy out with prosthetics from a fake uterus and he’s covered in real slime. It would be all CGI if they did that. Now it’s just this great fusion of a CGI environment, but a real actor.
Dave: I think part of it is the technology but also what the public expects now. And we’ll never be back because of COVID and how easy it is to shoot on a soundstage, how easy it is to go to Atlanta or go to Prague or something and shoot. on one of those giant soundstages and call it a day.
Jonah: Eternals, however, did a lot of outdoor shooting.
Dave: Yes, you can see it in the trailer for this movie; it’s vast and it has this scope and scale, but frankly you won’t get any Black Widow Where Shang-Chi, the two films that I like. These don’t feel like they’re in a real place. It feels like heightened reality from comics. But even The Dark Knight … how does he compare with The Lord of the Rings?
Jordan: The Dark Knight are cold movies. It’s all about spectacle or “ideas,” but there isn’t a lot of emotional stuff to hold onto. They are a craftsman being a craftsman and the Lord of the Rings movies are so sweet and heartfelt and the Sam and Frodo relationship is so beautiful and human that I think they give you the show but they give you the emotional stuff.
Dave: The experience of watching this while in your 40s and feeling isolated from your friends or family and stuck at home and unable to contact another human for your connection. Maybe it was for that [the “epicness”] worked on you this time – it was a cathartic element to watch the movie.
I want to bring up another epic movie that a lot of people equate to some of the best tech skills of all time: 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Jordan: Another movie that I like, but 2001 will eventually give way to Lord of the Rings, culturally, as it’s just not that much on TBS. Is the mark of an influential movie its frequency on TBS at 3 p.m. on a Sunday?
Jonah: I think that’s the number of people who marry the theme of this movie.
Dave: I wonder what’s going to happen to the way we consume entertainment when linear TV channels go completely gone. Today you still have the option to turn on TBS or TNT or USA Network and watch like all the James Bond movies are today, or they’ll show all the Harry Potter movies.
Jordan: The Lord of the Rings has become Great Cable Movies. It’s a hard thing to explain to people who are younger than us like why you would still want to hang on to this.
Jonah: We are talking about an art form that is roughly 100 years old. What we consider to be classics … everything is still so new. In the grand scheme of art, maybe it was always meant to be disposable.
Dave: I think curation is going to be really important. And people say that’s what has to survive. This is what happened to fine art, paintings, sculptures and things of that nature. Here is what we are going to keep. We might not be keeping as much as we are going to keep these things because those are the best things. And the Lord of the Rings, I hope, will survive. I think it has a better chance than most things to stay with us as a culture. But that’s only because it resonated in an emotional and beautiful world, and it was a world you wanted to revisit over and over again. So that’s a big question, Jordan: for Bubble how are you going to create a sci-fi fantasy universe where hopefully this will continue for many years to come?
Jordan: The starting point was satire. It is the story of a near future where people live in these domed cities and hipsters live separately from suburban dwellers and suburban dwellers live separately from rural dwellers. And we all interact with people who look like us and think like us. But we’re all just under the thumb of this mega-business that involves us in some sort of life-or-death economy to survive. Not super subtle. But I tried to do it all Bubble related to our world in one way or another, like finding the sci-fi version of the gig economy. Or, what’s the sci-fi version of the fact that we are becoming more and more isolated and only interacting with people who look like us and think like us? Now, it’s not like Star Trek where you have blueprints for the Enterprise. I really like this kind of sci-fi, but I think Bubble is more like the story of these characters who feel like they don’t belong and who feel like their society is trying to kill them.
Dave: The differentiation you make between Lord of the Rings and Bubble maybe they’re closer than you think. The Lord of the Rings, when it was written, was not only about Tolkien’s experience in WWI, but what he saw coming with WWII and the climactic nature of that conflict. And the One Ring being what a lot of people are saying now, it’s an analogue of nuclear power and the dangers of anyone with that much power. So in a way, it might not be satire, but there are still some resonant things to say about that moment.
And I think that’s what really separates big worlds from the kind of sloppy ones that are often created. These are the things that really last are the things you can apply this to now. Whenever something seems like it can be extrapolated, interpreted in the modern world in a modern context, it will last no matter what.