Film and drama

Screen Themes — Lord of the Rings vs Avatar

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Settle in for an epic, as entertainment editor John Turnbull re-evaluates the Lord of the Rings trilogy, 13 years after its conclusion and considers the impending rash of Avatar sequels.

Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) directed by Peter Jackson

Based on the dictionary-thick tome by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings tells the tale of hobbit Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy a magical ring, accompanied by a weird and wonderful group of companions.

In the extended DVD format this quest takes somewhere in the realm of nine hours, which is why the DVDs remained wrapped from when I excitedly bought them more than ten years ago.

The moment that sparked the eventual DVD viewing was my ten-year-old son Danger catching some of The Two Towers on TV. As the movie ran until well after midnight (thanks ads!) he couldn’t watch the whole thing then, but his interest was piqued. Being a family type of nerd, I sat down with both Danger and my daughter Angel to take the long and winding trip to Mount Doom.

Podcaster and occasional filmmaker Kevin Smith once derided LOTR as "three movies of people walking" and, to some extent, this isn’t far off the mark. What elevates this walk above similar films (and well above anything Smith has ever directed) is what happens while they’re walkin; the reward is in the journey, rather than the destination.

Starting out as a happy romp in Fellowship of the Ring, the series takes a darker turn in The Two Towers and gets seriously heavy in Return of the King. Themes of commitment, honour, friendship and loyalty elevate a relatively simple tale to classic status, made possible by an impeccable cast.

While Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his band of Hobbits (Sean Astin, Billy Boyd & Dominic Monaghan) are the ostensible protagonists, it is Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn and Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf who really steal the show. This is not to discount the contribution of actors, including Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Sean Bean, who are all fantastic, but it’s hard to top Gandalf facing down the Balrog or Aragorn fighting off a horde of black riders.

Much like the recent extended release of Batman vs Superman, the extended editions of LOTR add to the story rather than just padding out the runtime. If you haven’t seen these films and have nine or so hours to spare, I highly recommend checking them out …

Avatar (2009) directed by James Cameron

According to industry bean-counters Box Office Mojo, Avatar is the highest grossing movie ever made, bringing in a staggering $2.79 billion dollars in cinemas worldwide. This is despite the fact the movie was almost three hours long, starred a bunch of relative unknowns and had a plot lifted directly from Disney’s Pocahontas.

In order to provide a fair comparison to LOTR, I watched Avatar with my kids, Danger (10) and Angel (7). While neither of them were particularly interested in the movie to begin with, the spectacular visuals kept them interested for the first half hour, at which point Angel wandered off to watch YouTube and Danger settled in for the duration.

After protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, or a wooden facsimile thereof) was on screen for about ten minutes, Danger asked: "Can he talk?", which is a pretty fair comment considering his morose acting style. In one (unintentionally) amusing scene, a scientist advises Sully to "use big words" and Worthington looks genuinely confused, although to be fair most of the dialogue in Avatar is fairly awful.

As a lead, Worthington is relatively charmless, although he is rivalled on this score by Giovanni Ribisi’s generic corporate asshole and Stephen Lang’s R-Lee Ermey ripoff Colonel Quarich. Unusually in a sci-fi pic (with the obvious exceptions), the female actors fare better than the guys, with Sigourney Weaver a standout as bitter scientist Dr Grace Augustine. Constantly smoking (which looks like an anachronism even in 2016) and cynical about the motives of the military industrial complex, Dr Augustine is the closest thing to a fleshed out character in Avatar. Zoe Saldana does well under the CGI cat makeup, although even an actor of her calibre can’t do much with the hackneyed dialogue.

It is somewhat ironic that a movie with such an obvious anti-corporate message is the highest grossing film of all time. The themes of environmentalism vs corporate greed are handled with sledgehammer subtlety, with the military/corporate guys being universally evil and reveling in death and destruction. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the gentle Na’vi, which would probably be more effective protagonists if they didn’t all look like interchangeable video game characters.

At the end of the day, that’s probably the biggest problem with Avatar: it feels like a video game that you have no control over. And that’s just a bit boring, no matter how good it looks.

The Verdict

While they are deliberately paced, the Lord of the Rings films find joy in the interactions of the characters, the spectacular New Zealand scenery and amazing battle scenes that appear frequently through the series. With characters varied enough everyone can find a favourite, Lord of the Rings is a trilogy that sits comfortably alongside the Star Wars saga in the pantheon of great nerd films.

Visually spectacular but narratively dull, Avatar was financially successful enough to warrant studio 20th Century Fox greenlighting between three and five sequels, which James Cameron is currently filming back-to-back. While it seems highly unlikely that these sequels will be able to match the success of the original, I have to wonder if there will be a backlash against the hubris of Cameron and Fox: does anyone really want to see four more movies about one-note army men fighting against giant cat people?

Lord of the Rings Trilogy       John – 8/10              Danger – 9/10            Angel - 10/10

Avatar                                    John – 3/10              Danger – 6/10            Angel – 6/10


Like what you read? John Turnbull's books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee, you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame, action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Check them out!

You can also follow John on Twitter @blackmagicjohn.

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