One could safely assume that almost everyone alive in the late ’90s and early ‘2ks (or whatever) assumed that the Star Wars prequels would become the Star Wars of the new Millennium. As The Phantom Menace turned legions of fan hearts black, it was thought that perhaps The Matrix would take its place. The stylized thinking-man’s sci-fi action flick held strong, until the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. A fun and faithful adaptation of the behemoth book series seemed to please the entire family. Surely this is the Star Wars of the new millennium.
No, came rumblings from a distant land called New Zealand, there is another.
Like a dark rider, storming up the trail of cinemas everywhere, The Fellowship of the Ring blew audiences away with its darker and mature tone, its visual scope, its depth of world, story and character to match the spectacle. And it was a proper spectacle. As Sam and Frodo began their treacherous journey and the end credits began, there was no question – the throne of the Star Wars of the new Millennium had been claimed.
Let me be clear about this. There is no such thing as the Star Wars of anything. Nothing can be the anything else of anything. They are what they are.
Star Wars has been in my life since before I was born. My mother told me that when she was pregnant with me, she saw Return of the Jedi in theaters. She also told me that when I would wake up crying as a baby, she would put on Star Wars and it would keep me quiet. I LOVE Star Wars. I am not looking for a replacement for my personal favorite film series of all time.
I’m merely using this phrasing to emphasize the phenomenon and impact of the films. Something that moves beyond being a franchise, to a genuine phenomenon. Also, I am ONLY talking about the cultural impact of the films here. The books will be another post.
When Star Wars was released, no one had expected it to be as good, or as monumentally successful as it was. Most of the crew, and a goodly portion of the cast, didn’t even take it seriously. Almost no one believed in the project. You can’t blame them. No film like it had ever existed before. It would have been impossible to predict that it would connect so prominently with viewers and that they would be coming back again and again to see it.
I went to see Fellowship of the Ring opening weekend. The theater was pretty full, but not packed. Then I went again a week later. This time the theater was so full that another auditorium had to be opened to accommodate everyone, and people were still sitting on the floor. A few weeks later, I went back to try and see it with my parents, every showing that night, and a few the following day, had completely sold out.
My local Barnes and Noble (where I spent many weekends, and very little money) had a display of Tolkien books and tie-in merchandise. Beside it was a similar display for Harry Potter. During the weeks leading up to the release of both films, the Harry Potter display was constantly surrounded by curious customers. Less than a month after Lord of the Rigs premiered, Harry stood alone while people clamored to pick up as much Rings Merch as they could carry.
Kids at my high school, who never showed any sign of enjoying fantasy fiction, were suddenly carrying around copies of The Lord of the Rings. I even saw a few of these kids bringing in bootleg copies of it to share with each other (this was before pirating your own was common place).
Yes, Tolkien’s epic had been the second highest selling book of all time behind the bible. Yes, it has existed for decades. Yes, it created an entire genre by inspiring countless imitators,and the modern understanding of fantasy fiction. Yet to the masses it was some old big book that would be too much like work to read. So to them, and to the thousands who had never heard of it, and the folks distracted by Potter, and the fans of the books who thought the movies could never live up to their beloved novels, this movie was a major surprise.
If you look back at the majority of classic films and franchises, you’ll find that almost all of them were surprise hits. Very few expected hits actually live up to their promise of greatness. (Before anyone mentions Transformers being the massively successful hit it promised to be, please refer to the beginning of this statement and take note of the world “classic”. That word will never apply to those pointless experiments in pixel manipulation and noise. I yearn for the day when all memory of Bayformers is eradicated from public consciousness. And if you mention Twilight, please just smack yourself for me. Hard.)
The two films that followed Fellowship not only continued to draw in huge crowds (now in costume) but advance film making technology. Perhaps the most significant of these advancements was Gollum. By perfecting the process of motion capture the world learned it was possible to care for a completely digital character.
Now, eleven years after they first premiered, we have a new trilogy of prequels to look forward to. Expectations are understandably high. Like the Star Wars prequels, a controversial filming technique has been utilized in the production of them. Although using 48 frames a second rather than the standard 24 isn’t quite as worrisome as an over reliance on CG.
Also like Star Wars, this trilogy does not have the benefit of taking the world by surprise. Everyone is eager to see if The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey can hold on to the stature The Lord of the Rings achieved at the dawn of the millennium, when they took the world on a wondrous and unexpected journey.