First of a three-part series exploring the development of the blockbuster film trilogy over the 2000s
Allow me to make the case for the first decade of the twenty-first century as the peak of American blockbuster cinema. I know what you’re thinking: this dude’s tripping on his own nostalgia. But consider the fact that, while there great blockbusters were made before and after, the turn of the millennium provided the perfect circumstances for big studio spectacles to flourish both commercially, and more importantly, creatively. Movies have only gotten bigger, more expensive, and fuller of visual effects since, but except for a couple of movies here and there, the personal touch of the director has pretty much disappeared from blockbuster cinema.
In this Trilogy of Trilogies series, I want to explore not only the way that these movies excelled at being the best blockbuster cinema has to offer, but how their success ended up paving the way for their own demise. This first entry focuses on the Lord of the Rings trilogy as re-imagined for the screen by Peter Jackson. The second will focus on The Matrix movies, and the third on the infamous Star Wars prequels. Looking back on these trilogies, it becomes clear exactly how a short era of artistically driven, commercially successful blockbusters led to the current landscape of corporatized franchise entertainment.
If you are still on the fence about my claim, I have identified three criteria that make the movies of this period stand out from what came before and after:
Number one: They were spectacular. The technological developments of computer effects in the 90s paired with the cross-over success of Hong Kong martial arts cinema inspired filmmakers to attempt action set pieces that up to that point would’ve been impossible to pull off. The resulting movies were carefully calibrated and executed action spectacles. Nowadays we take incredibly complex computer effects for granted, but for many viewers at the time (myself included), these movies provided an opportunity to see incredible other-worldly visuals that had never graced the big screen before.
Number two: They were designed to be trilogies. The tendency at this time was to make trilogies with a beginning, middle and end. The success of these structured trilogies (something that hadn’t really caught on despite the success of the original Star Wars) changed people’s perception that sequels were more often than not worse than the original. Of course, this belief was taken to the extreme as we transitioned into a landscape were movie series are designed to continue on forever.
Number three: They were director-driven. Many of the movies we are going to talk about were re-introducing genres that were considered highly unpopular. A lot of the time, the studios saw the first movies in these trilogies as incredibly risky projects that were as likely to fail as to become hits. The studios simply didn’t take these genres seriously and had no idea of how to make them work. Thus, they turned to the directors. After all, it was the directors who made the first movie a hit, so why not let them do whatever they want with the sequels?
You can see these three criteria present in many movies of the time, regardless of whether we’ll be covering them in this series. You can see it in the way Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man codified the superhero movie through the director’s own fandom, in how Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean turned a theme park ride into an action extravaganza, and in Christopher Nolan’s polished, “elevated” take on Batman. These spectacular, director-driven trilogies couldn’t last (especially the director-driven part), as the studios eventually became savvy enough to “brand manage” their franchises. And that’s why I want to start this series by looking at the most critically acclaimed of all these trilogies: The Lord of the Rings.
As far as the first criterion is concerned, the spectacular nature of Peter Jackson’s trilogy is undeniable. We know that our own chief critic isn’t the biggest fan of the Lord of the Rings movies, but even he was impressed by the epic scope of their production. In his review of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tim describes the movie as: “an epic movie of a once-in-a-lifetime sort” and “one of the few times in live-action cinema that we are treated to an entire world consisting of not just a few communities or even a small country, but of hundreds of miles of different places and cultures, all of them invented wholesale – the Middle-Earth of the films is larger than the New Zealand portraying it, but you’d never be able to tell.” The same grandeur applies to the movie’s action set pieces, which get bigger and bigger as the movies go along, to the point that they end up making up whole acts of the latter movies’ screenplays.
It’s interesting that for all its vastness, the most impressive and influential visual effect in the trilogy is that small and sneaky creature Gollum. While the process used to create Gollum is not motion capture as we know it today (there was a lot of re-animating the reference footage performed by actor Andy Serkis), the fact that the visual effects artists and animators pulled off such an incredible creation was hugely influential. Without Gollum, our biggest reference for motion capture animation could be Robert Zemeckis’s dead-eyed incursions – hard to imagine the industry lining up to play with that technology. What has gotten a bit lost in the history books is the fact that the movies are both ambitious and cautious in their use of computer effects. There’s a sense that the filmmakers understood that computers could do a lot of incredible things, but they couldn’t do everything. There are still a lot of practical effects, incredible creature makeup, and even simple optical tricky in these movies – and they all help sell the reality of the adventure in a way that becomes increasingly hard the more you depend on digital imagery. See, for example, the rubbery CGI set pieces of Jackson’s return-to-Middle-Earth Hobbit trilogy.
The movies were also hugely influential in establishing the second criterion, since they were designed and produced as a trilogy of films from the beginning. In a gamble that could very easily have backfired catastrophically, New Line Cinema invested a ridiculous amount of money to let Jackson shoot all three movies back-to-back in New Zealand, not knowing whether the first movie would be a hit or not. To top things off, they were doing a high fantasy epic, a genre that hadn’t had a proper hit since the early eighties. This brings us to criterion number three: the fact that Jackson not only pulled off a set of great movies, but that they were a massive hit established him as a sort of miraculous figure. Not only did these movies set off a long list of fantasy novel adaptations trying to imitate their success, but they cemented the idea of a trilogy of movies as a viable artistic unit – as a way to avoid the diminishing returns of churning out an endless number of sequels.
With all this in mind, I will argue that the most important, and most unprecedented, development with The Lord of the Rings was the trilogy’s rapturous critical reception. I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on why these movies were able to transcend the genre bias that meets most blockbuster filmmaker and cement themselves as not only huge hits but Oscar juggernauts. The most convincing theory is that the fact that they were based on the works of well respected linguist J. R. R. Tolkien gave them an air of seriousness that wasn’t afforded to other fantasy movies. Whatever it was, it was tremendously influential in shaping the way we look at franchise filmmaking. Even though no franchise blockbuster has won Best Picture since, the Oscar success of The Lord of the Rings allowed middle brow audiences to accept that movies like this were worthy of serious consideration.
But was this a good development? Let’s consider Jackson’s career path. After sweeping the Oscars, he was allowed to make a hugely expensive, definitely spectacular, and deeply personal version of King Kong – a passion project that, while a commercial hit, couldn’t recapture the magic of the trilogy and was dismissed by many people as indulgent. He followed that up with the horribly received The Lovely Bones, which is an admittedly terrible movie, but also a clear product of the director’s vision. That was one failure too many for Jackson, and he quickly retreated back to Middle Earth with the Hobbit trilogy. In just ten years after his biggest success, he had become the movie equivalent of an old band that is forced to half-heartedly play the hits.
Jackson’s return to Middle Earth was motivated by many factors (apparently these movies were an attempt to save the New Zealand film industry from collapsing), but artistically, it was a sign that the brand had become stronger than the artist. Jackson was no longer a visionary who could make whatever movie he wanted, and was instead pigeon-holed as the guy who knew how to make Middle Earth movies. Not unlike George Lucas before him (and we’ll talk about this in a couple months), he had become subservient to his own creation. What endured in the public imagination was not the power of Jackson’s filmmaking, but the reliability of the Middle Earth brand. That’s the big irony of Jackson’s success: his Lord of the Rings movies were so thoroughly embraced by audiences and critics, and he was so celebrated as a visionary filmmaker, that they ended up paving the way for the demise of the kind of filmmaking that made them possible in the first place.
But that’s just the beginning of our journey. A month from today we’ll be talking about the unexpected success of The Matrix, and how their sequels helped popularize the idea that directors shouldn’t be left to their own devices.
Read part two of this series on The Matrix.
Read part three of this series on the Star Wars Prequels.
Conrado Falco III is a New York-based writer and filmmaker. He is the co-creator of the web-series Wormholes and the host of the Foreign Invader and The Criterion Project podcasts. He publishes most of his film writing at CocoHitsNY, but the best way to keep up with him is to follow him on Twitter (@CocoHitsNY).