The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is a miracle of filmmaking. Peter Jackson took one of the most beloved books in the history of Western literature, and New Line Cinema took a ridiculous gamble backing three movies that were predicated on a fantasy genre that had largely lain dormant for decades. Billions of dollars and loads of Oscars later, the Lord of the Rings was a risk that paid off but re-watching the trilogy this past weekend on its new 4K Blu-ray you can see how these movies were both groundbreaking in their VFX while being singular in their approach to blockbuster storytelling. While Lord of the Rings heralded plenty of imitators (remember Eragon?), the earnestness and unabashed high fantasy of these movies now stands apart from the more modern stylings of the 21st century blockbuster.
It would be a mistake to call the Lord of the Rings “dated”, and in their new 4K transfers all of the visuals hold up beautifully. I half expected Gollum (Andy Serkis), one of the first fully motion captured characters in a live-action film, to pale in comparison to mo-cap creations in a post-Avatar world, but while the VFX are no longer at the cutting edge, they’re still good enough when combined with the precision of the writing and Serkis’ performance. Even non-characters like the CGI cave troll in Fellowship of the Ring have lost none of their potency because they work as a piece with the larger scene rather than being a neat effect for the sake of the effect. Melded with a heavy reliance on practical effects and a bevy of supporting VFX, Lord of the Rings doesn’t feels dated, but timeless.
That timelessness carries over to the direction and Jackson’s decision to never temper the source material. Jackson essentially trusted that the storytelling and characters were powerful enough that they would overcome any reservations about how he presented that story and characters. To put it another way, Lord of the Rings is almost anti-modern in its depictions. Outside of some sweet moves by Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the movies have almost no interest in being deemed “cool”, and even in the biggest set pieces, there’s no whiz-bang mentality that blockbusters typically embrace. Instead, Jackson takes J.R.R. Tolkien’s clear antipathy towards war and uses that to show it as a necessary evil that, as we can see with Frodo, doesn’t even spare its survivors.
It’s hard to imagine a character like Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) even existing in today’s blockbuster environment that’s so wholly reliant on unambiguous heroics. In lesser hands or with a more meddlesome studio, it’s easy to see a change in the ending where Frodo nobly rejects the ring and shows that a good man can avoid corruption. But instead, Jackson sticks to Tolkien and shows that Frodo did succumb to the ring and it was really only through happenstance (or fate, if you choose to be more charitable) that Gollum took the ring and fell into the fires of Mount Doom. We’re currently living through the age of superheroes where heroism is bold and clear, but in Lord of the Rings, only Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) really embodies that kind of heroism, and even that pales in comparison to the humble humanity demonstrated by Samwise (Sean Astin).
Furthermore, much of our current blockbuster landscape is tempered with a knowing irony. Storytellers constantly feel the need to prove that they are somehow “ahead” of the audience, so there’s elements like lampshading (trying to write away a problem by having a character openly acknowledge said problem) or simply a kind of proud detachment that seeks to comfort the audience by playing to their concerns. And it’s remarkable how little Lord of the Rings cares about any of that. Yes, it was made with an audience in mind, and Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens took a few liberties with the source material, but tonally Lord of the Rings never apologizes for itself or makes excuses for the reality it presents.
If anything, as the series goes on it leans even harder into its fantasy trappings and unique personality. Before the Battle of Helm’s Deep, Theoden (Bernard Hill) recites a poem. At no point, does someone go, “Before the battle, you need to say this poem,” or even “This king really loves poetry.” He just says, “Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountains. Like wind in the meadow. The days have gone down in the West, behind the hills, into shadow…How did it come to this?” And Jackson embeds it as dramatic buildup to the battle, using it to hammer home the stakes of the war down to the unnamed soldiers who will be killed rather than simply rest on “The evil guy will conquer the world if we lose.”
Watching Lord of the Rings, it’s a unique tapestry where every element works and never apologizes for its existence. These are not deep cut movies where you need to know every single thing about the blood of Númenor, but you do have to keep up to understand the various lineages, factions, and mythology at play, but because Jackson so clearly believes in this Middle-earth, we believe in it as well. Yes, in its broad strokes it’s a story about good triumphing over evil, but at a granular level we see the sacrifices involved in what it takes to defeat evil. These movies work on a macro and micro level.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that they were impossible to emulate. The clear successor of Lord of the Rings hasn’t been any of its fantasy film follow-ups or even Jackson’s prequel trilogy for The Hobbit. Instead, it was Game of Thrones that took up the fantasy mantle, but even here it was largely reliant in its earlier seasons with massive helpings of political intrigue while showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were clearly never that comfortable with any of the fantastical elements beyond using White Walkers and Dragons as threats and weapons, respectively.
A new Lord of the Rings series is in development for Amazon, but I don’t know if they’ll be able to recapture the magic of this original trilogy. There’s a freedom in these movies that permeates every scene so that you either buy into this world or you don’t, but it makes no apologies for itself. If you’re not on board after Galadriel’s (Cate Blanchett) prologue about the history of the One Ring, you’re probably not going to care about anything that comes afterwards. That’s how quickly Jackson establishes the tone and personality of these movies, and it’s his confident that direction that led to these movies being such massive successes.
Lord of the Rings didn’t create a legacy of equally important fantasy films, and arguably its VFX advancements and the rise of WETA were the most important impacts on the film industry. And yet Lord of the Rings doesn’t feel like it has been left behind any more than The Wizard of Oz could be qualified as some dusty relic. Instead, it remains a triumph of storytelling and filmmaking that’s shown itself to be imitated, but never repeated.