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The Lord of the Rings movies redefined ‘epic,’ but how long will the definition last?

Our Galaxy Brains hosts debate how the trilogy plays against classics, modern blockbusters, and new viewing habits

Balrog attacks Gandalf in the mines of Moria in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings Image: New Line Cinema

It’s been 20 years since film history changed forever. No, I’m not talking about the release of Zoolander (though it was fair to guess that I was). The first installment in the now-classic Lord of the Rings trilogy debuted back in 2001, acting as a soothing balm for a weary nation still reeling from the events of September 11. That Fellowship of the Ring was a right-place-right-time release with all manner of unintended social relevance is an oft-invoked bit of conventional wisdom, but I host a podcast called Galaxy Brains, so conventional wisdom is kind of not my thing.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.

The timing was certainly right for J.R.R Tolkien’s tale of perseverance, community, and oddly intense male friendship, but so much more was at play. The triumph of the Lord of the Rings didn’t just come down to happy coincidence. The stars had to align in more ways than one to allow these movies to touch millions of people across multiple 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 that borders on the superhuman. From the cinematography by Andrew Lesnie to the stirring score from Howard Shore and the indelible performances by Ian McKellan, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, and Elijah Wood, every single element of these movies had to make you feel deeply. It’s less a movie and more a miracle.

Great epic filmmaking has graced cinema screens since the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in 2003 — Avatar, The Dark Knight, Avengers: Endgame — but none of them can quite match the emotional honesty and old school “aw, shucks” vibe that Peter Jackson instilled in the DNA of his greatest triumph. The definition of epic is more than just the size of a CG thing blowing up.

On this week’s Galaxy Brains, Jonah Ray and I are joined by comedian, podcaster, and writer of the epic sci-fi graphic novel Bubble, Jordan Morris. We’ll grapple with what made the Lord of the Rings films the most monumental works in cinema history, and whether that success can carry on into the future of cultural significance.

Here’s a snippet of that conversation. Hear the entire episode wherever you get your podcasts.

Dave: Jordan, you only recently watched the 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 seminal movie franchise of all time”?

Jordan: You guys remember COVID-19, right? So when that happened and I was alone in my apartment looking for long things to watch, I was like, “You know what, I’m going to give these Lord of the Rings another try.” And I loved them. I just thought they were so beautiful and sincere and well-made and, you know, definitely displayed a like a craftsmanship that kind of modern blockbusters don’t really. And I got so into 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 still will watch them. Because you’re in that world and they shoot on a lot of practical locations. A lot of the time it’s like, yeah, right. It doesn’t matter if it’s the actual actors, but there’s people dressed up as the characters on the like peak of a mountain and they have a helicopter shot going up and you’re like, “Where the fuck is that?” And they actually had to get those people up there because that’s not CGI. And that’s why I’m so excited and don’t care if this Amazon thing is going to be good because I just want to go back there. I want to see that stuff again.

Jordan: This is an ice cold take, but it’s always worth mentioning that they just did such a good job of blending CGI and practical stuff. It’s like that scene in the first one where you go into like the orc birthing pit and they’re pulling a guy in prosthetics out of a fake womb and he’s covered in real slime. That would be all CGI if they did this. Now it’s just this great melding of like a CGI environment, but a real actor.

Dave: I think partially it’s the technology but also what the audience expects now. And we’re never going to go back to that because of COVID and how easy it is to shoot on a soundstage, how simple it is to just go to Atlanta or go to Prague or something and shoot on one of these giant soundstages and call it a day.

Jonah: Eternals, though, did a lot of location shooting.

Dave: Yeah, you can see that in the trailer for that movie; it’s expansive and it does have that scope and that scale, but quite frankly, you’re not going to get from Black Widow or Shang-Chi, both movies that I like. Those don’t feel like they’re in a real place. It feels like a heightened comic book reality. But even the The Dark Knight ... how does it compare with Lord of the Rings?

Jordan: The Dark Knight are chilly movies. They’re about spectacle or “ideas,” but there’s not a lot of emotional stuff to grab on to. They’re a craftsman being a craftsman and the Lord of the Rings movies are so sweet and sincere and the Sam and Frodo relationship is so beautiful and humane that I think they they give you the spectacle but they give you the emotional stuff.

Dave: The experience watching this during the quarantine and feeling like you were isolated from your friends or your family and you were stuck at home and you couldn’t you couldn’t reach out to another human being for your connection. Maybe that was why [the “epicness”] worked on you this time — it was a cathartic element to the watching of the movie.

I want to bring up another epic film that a lot of people equate with some of the finest technical craftsmanship of all time: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Jordan: Another movie I love, but 2001 will ultimately take a back seat to Lord of the Rings, culturally, because it’s just not on TBS as much. Is the mark of an influential movie is how often is it on TBS at 3 p.m. on a Sunday?

Jonah: I think it’s how many people get married to the theme of that movie.

Dave: I wonder what’s going to happen to the way that we consume entertainment when linear television channels fully disappear. Today you still have that opportunity to turn on TBS or TNT or USA Network and watch like all the James Bond movies are on today, or they’re going to show all the Harry Potter movies.

Jordan: Lord of the Rings became Great Cable Movies. It’s a tough thing to explain to people who are younger than us, like why you would want to still kind of cling on to that.

Jonah: We’re talking about an artform that’s just about 100 years old. What we consider classics ... everything’s still so new. In the grand scheme of art, maybe it was always supposed to be disposable.

Dave: I think curation is going to be really important. And people saying this is the stuff that needs to survive. That’s what happened to fine art, paintings and sculptures and things of that nature. Here’s what we’re going to keep. We’re maybe not going to keep as as much we’re going to keep these things because these are the best things. And Lord of the Rings, I hope, will survive. I think it has a better chance than most things to to stick with us as a culture. But that’s only because it was resonate in an emotional and beautiful and was a world you wanted to revisit over and over again. So that’s a big question, Jordan: For Bubble how do you go about creating a science fiction fantasy universe to where hopefully that will continue on for many, many years to come?

Jordan: The jumping off point was satire. It’s the story of a near future where people live in these dome cities and hipsters live separately from the suburban people and the suburban people live separately from the rural people. And we all just interact with people who look and think like us. But we’re all just under the thumb of this mega-corporation that makes us participate in kind of a life-or-death gig economy to survive. Not super subtle. But I tried to make everything in Bubble related to our world somehow, like finding the sci-fi version of the gig economy. Or, what’s the sci-fi version of the fact that we’re becoming more isolated and only interacting with people who look and think like us? Now, it’s not like Star Trek where you have schematics for the Enterprise. I like that kind of sci-fi a lot, but I think Bubble is more about like the story of these characters who feel like they don’t belong and feel like their society is trying to kill them.

Dave: The differentiation you’re making between Lord of the Rings and Bubble is maybe they’re closer than you think. Lord of the Rings, when it was being written, was really about not just Tolkien’s experience in World War I, but what he saw coming with World War II and the climactic nature of that conflict. And the One Ring being what a lot of people now say is an analog for nuclear power and the dangers of anyone having that much power. So in a way, maybe not a satire, but it’s still had resonant things to say about that moment in time.

And I think that’s what really separates great worlds from the kind of slapdash ones that are often created. Those are the things that really last are the ones where you can apply that to now. Any time something feels like it can be extrapolated, interpreted in the modern world in a modern context, it’s going to last no matter what.


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