Art Vs Commerce: Trilogies! Of Terror? (2000s)

2001

The Lord of the Rings was an unprecedented cinematic event. An epic trilogy adapting one of fantasy’s best-known, best-loved stories, groundbreaking practical and digital effects, all three filmed in one go so we knew we’d get the whole story, unlike last time.

Of course… knowing we’d get the whole story within 24 months meant that it didn’t make much sense to consider the Rings movies as individual entities. This, to my thinking, was a possible reason that while the Rings movies raked in piles of Oscar nominations each year, the first two only ever won in the technical categories. Perhaps voters felt that they should wait to see the finished product before handing Peter Jackson the big trophies. Perhaps the more conservative, anti-blockbuster voters were loath to vote for Fellowship of the Ring for fear that Oscar night would just be the Lord of the Rings show for the next three years. I mean… it kind of was, only for the first two years it became about what would win instead of Lord of the Rings.

Because for whatever reason, while the Oscars couldn’t hold back the swarms of nominations, they seemed determined to hold off on the Big Trophies until it was all done.

So, what was their “Not Rings” choice in 2001? Something really notable, something that really clung to public consciousness?

And The Oscar Goes To…

Oh. Good. It’s a Great Man Biopic featuring a white dude fishing for an Oscar. You know I love those.

John Nash (Russell Crowe) is a mathematician hoping to break ahead of the pack at Princeton despite not going to class or publishing anything because he can’t find an “original idea.” When he finally does have one, it gets him a posting at MIT, where he meets his future wife (Jennifer Connelly) and gets a job codebreaking for the government, uncovering a massive conspiracy. Which turns out to be entirely in his mind, as twist, he’s not just terrible at socializing, he has schizophrenia, and his Princeton roommate Charles (Paul Bettany) and government contact William Parcher (Ed Harris) don’t exist. He hasn’t been deciphering codes and bringing them to the government, he’s been dropping gibberish off at an abandoned mansion. After finally coming to terms with his illness, he finds that his medication doesn’t only stop him from working, but from being a functional husband and father, but without it the delusions come rushing back. But against the advice of his doctor (Christopher Plummer), he tries to find his own path to freedom from his delusions without medication.

Then we start time-jumping like they saw the clock and realized how long they were running (it’s two hours fifteen, nothing intolerable), and before you know it it’s three or four decades later and he’s winning a Nobel Prize.

It’s like three movies. A young student trying to find his place in the field, a tense conspiracy thriller, and a struggle against mental illness, and it doesn’t do any of them badly, per se (the visualization of Nash’s tendency to spot patterns even where they didn’t exist was good practice for director Ron Howard’s work on The Da Vinci Code), but trying to do all of them makes for a bit of a mess. Jennifer Connelly is doing well with it, sure, but it over-commits to each stage.

When Nash is a student, it’s all-in on “socially awkward genius finds a way to get ahead,” and the only hint to where we’re going is that nobody but Nash ever acknowledges Charles’ presence. Which here in 2021 is a signal flare for “this dude doesn’t exist,” although to be fair, for most of the intervening twenty years it still would have fooled me. I’ve been one step ahead of the “this person isn’t real” plot twist exactly twice: Joker and the season five finale of Elementary.

Anyway, then we’re completely committed to “Nash the codebreaker,” and the delusion is so elaborate it’s hard not to take it as presented. Which, yes, that’s the point. The point is to present the delusion so convincingly we understand how Nash was brought into it. I get it. I’m with you. But then there is a drastic tone change again, and now we’re all-in on “Nash goes twitchy while trying to rebuild a life without relying on meds.” Which leads to a whole bunch of time jumps to get us to their endgame moment of the Nobel Prize. There’s also a certain amount of “We weren’t great at dealing with mental illness in the past, sometimes the medication wasn’t great.”

And I guess what I’m saying is maybe they needed to pick two, because trying to do all three means none of them are really getting done 100% well. And Great Man Biopics are already a less inspiring than they want to be, so it didn’t need that extra strike.

There is, of course, some revisionism. The worst of it being that Nash’s wife is from El Salvador, but they surely went with a white actress. The harmless revision is that Nash never had hallucinations: Parcher, Charles, and Charles’ niece (whose eternal youth becomes the key to Nash finding his way to reality) are simply a screenwriters’ trick to personify Nash’s paranoia. To let us into Nash’s mind so we understand his pain at finding the world isn’t what his mind told him. Also during Oscar season, rumours that had previously been discarded by the Nobel committee resurfaced that Nash was quietly anti-Semitic, but the Academy considered those rumours “gauche p.r. tactics from competing film studios,” or in other words Harvey Weinstein running another smear campaign in an attempt to get Miramax’s In The Bedroom to the podium. (I don’t know that, but on the other hand, don’t I?)

So not the worst Great Man Biopic we’ve covered so far, but not the best Russell Crowe movie either. But its one good contribution to pop culture has to be, in a roundabout way, this:

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Down even further than Gladiator at #84, under Braveheart and Terms of Endearment but two spots over Forrest Gump and I get being mad on Pulp Fiction’s behalf but come on.

Which Fellowship Member Are You? A Beautiful Mind is Boromir. A little weighed down by its own imagined self-importance, gets left behind pretty fast, but it’s trying its best. But maybe it grows on you down the road.

It wasn’t a big hit, though Oscar buzz still came with a box office bump, so it did moderately well, ending about $40 million short of the international top 10. But of course, audiences were flocking to a certain fantasy epic that had just kicked off.

The Box Office Champion

Yes, The Fellowsh–Wait what

But

Domestic and inter–? Huh. Okay. It’s just… [stares forlornly at Fellowship DVD] …it’s the best one, is all I’m… fine. Fine.

Okay. Harry Potter.

So no, where highly anticipated fantasy novel adaptations were concerned, Lord of the Rings was not the only game in town. By 2001, Harry Potter was four novels deep and a full-fledged phenomenon. A generation of future nerds were growing up right along with Harry and Hermione and Ron and the gang. An older generation of nerds was interested to see what the big deal was. And the creator hadn’t yet gone full-TERF and devoted her high-profile megaphone to crusading against one of the most vulnerable marginalized groups in the human race, based on made-up bullshit about what cismales might do if transwomen aren’t forced back into the closet.

So let’s forget Joanne and her foolish, hateful campaign and talk about what helped make Harry Potter a multi-billion dollar franchise.

First off, yes, this is some classic monomyth wish-fulfilment narrative right here, lonely sad kid gets to go to wizard school and finds out he’s rich, famous, instantly great at sport, and destined to be great. Man, even Luke Skywalker had to work his way through the ranks, but yeah, I get it, that’s a hook for your kids’ book.

Second, this is the least action-packed Harry Potter in the franchise, and I’m about to tell you why that’s a strength. There are some hints about Voldemort and the Philosopher’s Stone (not the Sorcerer’s Stone, no matter how much publishers/distributers felt US audiences would be turned off by the word “philosopher,” or wouldn’t know this was about magic without the word “sorcerer”) as we move through, but until the last half hour it’s just the occasional run-in with a monster or stealth trip to the forbidden library. We spend more time on Harry discovering the magic world, learning to play Quiddich, trying to get by in class, and making friends with Ron and Hermione, without whom this would be a single book about the Boy Who Lived But Not Long Really.

And that’s what makes it work. The world-building. Experiencing the Wizarding World through Harry’s eyes. The Golden Trio and their rivalry with Draco Malfoy. Hogwarts and Quiddich and Diagon Alley, the stuff Universal made into theme park attractions that could compete with Disneyland. Kids… and yes many an adult… wanted to go to Hogwarts, live in that world in a way they hadn’t since Star Wars. (Look I could stand to visit Hobbiton or Rivendell but I’d smuggle in butterbeer.)

That’s why Harry Potter is a phenomenon and Percy Jackson, by way of a for instance, isn’t. Everyone wants to go to Hogwarts, few feel the same about Camp Half-Blood. And if you have no idea what I just said, doesn’t that prove my point? That everyone knows what Hufflepuff means but you’re not sure whether I made up Camp Half-Blood? (I’d link the video that taught me what Percy Jackson’s deal is, but a) do you care, and b) it was a Patreon exclusive so I actually can’t. Shouldn’t. Won’t. Take your pick.)

So yeah, it’s a decent flick and good intro to this world, if not visionary or anything. You don’t hire Chris Columbus to direct because you want something groundbreaking, you hire Chris Columbus so you’ll get something predictably competent. He’s not gonna redefine a genre like Spielberg or throw an elbow like Rian Johnson but you’re gonna get good framing, decent character work, some clever camera moves, and a sense of set-up and payoff. He’s fine and reliable.

Downsides? It foreshadows a problem the film adaptations will have in increasing amounts for the next five movies. It’s two and a half hours long (but doesn’t feel too long), and still had to cut a bunch of stuff out of the book. Like the ghosts. Want a quick way to know if someone’s a film fan or book fan? Mention Peeves the Poltergeist. If you get a moderate-length spiel of how important Peeves was to Hogwarts culture, that’s a book fan. If you get “Eh, you don’t miss him,” or “Who?” that’s a film fan. The producers knew the Hogwarts ghosts were supposed to be important, they even got John Cleese to play one, but he has two scenes, and the second one is just a walk-past bit of exposition, and it’s terrible. Honestly the ghosts lift right out, almost as easily as Tom Bombadil lifts right out of Fellowship of the Rings yeah I said it, he is a detour at best. I’m also glad they cut Glorfindel the elf and gave his role to Arwen come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough, Tolkien purists.

Anyway a bunch got cut, and this is the shortest book. By a large margin. The need for the franchise to skim over Hogwarts life and focus on the core plot gets worse and worse. Reading the books I was very invested in Harry’s exams, but the movies have no time for them. The movies even skip the very best scene with Harry’s terrible, terrible relatives the Durselys, in which after 16 years Dumbledore finally full-out shames them for not even trying to love their nephew. You suck, Vernon Dudley, you suck and I wish Voldemort had killed you.

Philosopher’s Stone got the franchise off to a strong start, and all things considered it’s remarkable they cast that many child actors and aging British legends and only had to deal with one death (Richard Harris, after two movies as Dumbledore) and one child actor flame-out (Crabbe or Goyle, one of them, Google it if you need to). And again, nobody knew the creator would become such a vocal transphobe it would taint the entire franchise in ways we’re still grappling with.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 81% from critics, 82% from audiences, perfectly respectable scores.

Other Events in Film

  • Perhaps the most important release of 2001 is the micro-budget Canadian indie flick Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter, in which God sends his only son (Phil Caracas) to kill vampires for our sins. And to protect lesbians, whose skin (as we all know) is natural sunblock for vampires. It’s absolutely terrible and I absolutely love it.
  • Ocean’s 11. Ocean’s 11 happens this year. It succeeds at what so few attempt: maybe remaking good movies isn’t the move, maybe movies with good concepts but poor execution are what y’all should be remaking. Anyway it’s basically perfect I love it.
  • Of course Hollywood can’t make just one of anything, so there’s also The Score from Frank Oz (another nail in Marlon Brando’s “impossible to work with” coffin) and Heist from David Mamet. Yeah, sometimes I forget about those ones too.
  • Meanwhile Tim Burton takes a crack at Planet of the Apes and hoo. Wow. No.
  • Not officially a remake, but Vin Diesel and Paul Walker star in a movie that’s basically just Point Break with drag racing in place of surfing: The Fast and the Furious. Nobody, in the world, could possibly have guessed where that movie would ultimately lead.
  • Moulin Rouge! from Baz Luhrman breathes new life into Hollywood movie musicals, for good or ill.
  • Dreamworks and Pixar go head to head with Monsters, Inc. and Shrek. Monsters take the lead in overall box office, but Shrek wins the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar. You won’t often see Pixar losing that Oscar to Dreamworks (or at all, really), unless they made some Doc Hollywood remake with talking cars voiced by Larry the Cable Guy or some nonsense like that. Man. Can you imagine.
  • Of course, Russell Crowe did not get that Oscar, as they’d just given him one for Gladiator to make up for passing him over for The Informant, so this year they had to give one to Denzel Washington for his more bombastic performance in Training Day to make up for passing him over for Malcolm X. And, like Pacino before him, Denzel clearly said “Hey, if that’s what you’re into…”
  • Jurassic Park III is not the best Jurassic Park by any measure, but it’s the most efficient. Just people being chased by dinosaurs, one after the other.
  • Michael Bay takes a swing at making some Titanic-style Oscar bait with Pearl Harbor, and it goes so badly the South Park guys wrote a love ballad about how bad it is.
  • Christopher Nolan, however, starts turning heads with Memento. Not his first, no, but it got attention.
  • If we’d known where Heath Ledger, Paul Bettany, and Alan Tudyk were heading as actors, maybe fewer of y’all would have slept on A Knight’s Tale. Shame Shannyn Sossamon didn’t manage to keep up with them.
  • The Mummy Returns joins Ghostbusters II in proving that no matter how good the first movie was, getting the same writer, director, and cast back together to do the same thing is no guarantee of success.
  • Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is very dumb and quite ridiculous, and still passed Mortal Kombat for the title of “Best video game movie, I guess?” That is a genre that just has not had a Superman. It certainly wasn’t Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. No video game series should be as easy to adapt as Final Fantasy but nope, they whiffed it hard.
  • Wet Hot American Summer is so filled with future comedy all-stars that discovering it 15 years later, it almost defied belief. Also it’s hilarious and at least one of the reunion series is too.
  • Kevin Smith makes Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, a vehicle for his friend Jason Mewes that ties a bow on his little cinematic universe for a time, in exchange for Jason getting off heroin and oxy. It works! …Until, sadly, filming wraps and Mewes relapses. (He’s doing much better now.)
  • Not Another Teen Movie is a parody not from any of the lesser Wayanses or Friedberg and Seltzer, and because of that, while it still tends to hinge on pop culture references so likely hasn’t aged well, I found it funny enough that I own it on DVD. Haven’t watched it in yonks, but it’s in the collection somewhere. It served as a launching pad for Chris “Captain America” Evans and Chyler “Supergirl’s kickass sister Alex” Leigh.
  • The Musketeer attempts to combine the Three Musketeers with Hong Kong fight choreography, and the only reason it wasn’t the worst thing to happen that week is that it came out on September 7th, 2001.
  • And there were a lot of movies that got hyped a fair bit with big names in them where I’m just, “Why remind people that happened.” I didn’t even watch Bandits, what is there to say about it?

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