On Tuesday night, I went to the movies to see how Tom Cruise fared as an American turned samurai. I figured that if I wanted to see THE RETURN OF THE KING, I should probably see it tomorrow as it would be my only chance in a couple weeks, before everyone else has talked about it ad nauseum.
"So, if I wanted to see the 7:00 show tomorrow night, when should I be here?"
"Actually sir, the 7:00 is already almost sold out."
"You're kidding! 24 hours in advance?"
"Yes," the ticket taker responded in that look that I knew too well from my own job. It's the look that says, "How many times am I going to have to explain this? And will I be able to restrain myself from stabbing someone in the eye with my ball point pen?"
Not wanting to give the poor girl a hard time, I said, "Well, how is the 8:00 show doing?" "We have some of those." "Great, give me one ticket and I'll try to make it tomorrow." I did, 45 minutes early. I was pretty sleepy and so I woke myself up with a good ten minutes of shooting virtual terrorists in the arcade. A half hour early, I figured I'd go into the theatre and should be able to find a decent seat. I did, but just barely. The theatre was already three quarters packed and it was only providence that said my trusty seat in third row center was unoccupied. Looking around, I saw a lot of people in groups. Some of them obviously had been waiting since 2001 for this very moment. It all had a festive quality to it and it was refreshing. I didn't have a huge hard-on for LORD OF THE RINGS, but I certainly thought the first two films were very good. Spirits were very high. This is the enthusiasm that should have met the STAR WARS prequels, if they hadn't proved themselves to be such mediocre forms of entertainment. So I sat there, slightly awakened by the crowd and hoped that I would remain attentive for THE RETURN OF THE KING.
Our ten hour journey is finally complete. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING is by far the best of the series, giving fans everything they would hope for and more. It represents the ultimate culmination in a trilogy that was nearly flawless. But the emphasis there is nearly.
It goes without saying that if you haven't seen the first two films, this isn't going to make a lick of sense. They'll be forced to give up the second our heroes begin talking to a tree. This is more one complete film than three separate ones. We are treated to a brief prologue showing the origin of Gollum (Andy Serkis), a scene which was also used in Ralph Bakshi's old LORD OF THE RINGS animated film (the only scene of the film I've watched, to be honest). After that, it picks up immediately where THE TWO TOWERS left off. Strider (Viggo Mortensen), long since outed as Aragorn, the heir to Gondor, continues to make nice with the people of Rohan. Gandalf the White (Sir Ian McKellan) is still a distant and guarded version of his more cheerful Grey self. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) bond, although they don't have as much to do this time around. The king of Gondor honors his debts as Eowyn (Miranda Otto) pines for Aragorn. Merry and Pippin rejoin the group, jubilant over their victory at Eisengard. Their victory is short-lived as Pippin stumbles upon Sauron's plans for further invasions in Middle Earth. This leads Gandalf and Pippin off together as the remaining group prepares for another battle.
Meanwhile, Frodo (Elijah Wood), Samwise (Sean Astin, still the best performance of his career) and Smeagol continue to make their way through Mordor. As Frodo looks more and more worn down by the burden of his travels, he is unaware of the plotting around him. Smeagol has lost his battle of wills against his alter ego, Gollum. Now, he tries to pit Frodo against his old friend Sam, while leading them to certain death.
Lady Arwen (Liv Tyler) leaves the elf clan's journey into the west, as a vision tells her there may be more to her fate than she previously realized. Through her pleading, Elrond (Hugo Weaving) agrees to restore the Sword of Gondor to its rightful heir, even though it may cost Arwen her life.
All of this is covered within the first half hour of this mammoth film that does not stop for a second. I will say this, for the entire 3 hour and 21 minute running time, I was never bored and if anything, I was more alert at the end of the film than I was at the beginning. Jackson creates a wonderful and brisk pace. The film is original in its storytelling and never panders to the audience. Smeagol never falls prey to Jar Jar syndrome, becoming comic relief to the increasingly dark proceedings. Everything moves at a natural progression. The screenplay for this outing is one of the best in recent memory and only MYSTIC RIVER comes close to this brilliance this year.
The performances are also top notch, the best we've seen in epic filmmaking in a long time. Many of the participants, including Wood, Mortensen, Astin and Otto give career best performances. Even Tyler tops her amazing turn in STEALING BEAUTY.
But the real star of the show here is Peter Jackson. And this is the part that gives us horror and cult film lovers the warm and fuzzies. This is a man from New Zealand who spent years creating one of the most violent alien invasion comedies ever, the aptly named BAD TASTE, only to follow it up with the even nastier MEET THE FEEBLES and BRAINDEAD (a.k.a. DEAD-ALIVE). He made a dramatic turn, revealing a completely new directing style in HEAVENLY CREATURES, a film I still consider his personal best. We didn't have too much reason to believe that Jackson would make it much bigger than his strangely addicting film THE FRIGHTENERS. Then, he pitched this idea to Miramax who balked and then to New Line who immediately ran with the idea. Amazing! Nothing less than divine providence! Now our beloved maestro is being rightly called a cinematic visionary, one who is now tackling the original 800 lb. Gorilla, KING KONG. And he still remembers his fans, talking about doing another zombie picture. Not bad for a guy who just fifteen years ago was ingesting his own vomit on screen.
He has created a beautiful and epic film, in every sense of the word. The incredible exteriors and wide open spaces courtesy of cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (BABE) is unmatched by anything I've seen in years. I could just look at those shots and weep at their beautiful composition. Art direction, production design, set decoration and costumes are all amazing. The battle scenes themselves are the most amazing achievement I've seen. It's proof that CGI can work when it's grouped with clarity of purpose and artistic ingenuity. They are the new barometer for which epic battles should be judged. BRAVEWHAT? BEN-WHO?
But even I have to admit there is quite a bit of hyperbole going around about the LORD OF THE RINGS films, and coming from me that's saying something. I was going to list a series of them here, but in looking at them I didn't see the point. I do suggest you go to Rotten Tomatoes, MovieWeb or the IMDB to see some of the things critics from all walks of life are saying. Much of it is praise that is well deserved. Jackson has indeed created an amazing film. This film deserves to be remembered as a crowning achievement in epic storytelling, even if my money is still on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as the end-all be-all winner of this one. Is it a perfect trilogy? Close, and certainly as good as we're likely to see for many years to come. No faulting Jackson for creating a stirring, sweeping, moving achievement.
But let's just step back a second. There are a couple things where, while I don't want to be the nit-picker, I can't help it. There is the absence of Christopher Lee to deal with for one thing. Yes, Saruman's fate is in the book and Lee's scenes are said to be restored for the Extended Version DVD. But what about now? We just stumbled upon the ruins of Eisengard and we're meant to assume what? That he was crushed by a boulder while running away like a little girl? This is not the ranting of a Christopher Lee fan, although I am that. No, this is just continuity. It drops the character completely and we're supposed to wait until the four-hour plus DVD just to find out what happened to him?
There is also a point in just one of the incredible battles where a friendly force shows up out of the blue. Now, I seem to recall this particular group from reading bits of THE HOBBIT years ago, but I don't think I've heard any mention of them in either of the theatrical films. Their sudden appearance, while breathtaking in its beauty should almost be accompanied by a flashing neon sign reading "Deux Ex Machina."
And then there's the color. Sorry folks, but while I loved the images some of the battle scenes, and anything with the Elves looked incredible, there are many scenes that were purposely drained of color and it didn't look completely great. These are most apparent as Frodo, Sam and Smeagol move through Mordor. And yes, grays and browns are appropriate given the rocky molten terrain. Still, the color correction that hurt parts of UNDERWORLD and the last two MATRIX films also show up here, although in not such an intrusive manner.
But one of the bigger problems is the epilogue. Not the climax, the epilogue. I will not say much about the ending of RETURN OF THE KING except to say that there is an amazing climax, a wonderful wrap-up and then� it just keeps going. And yes, I am sure all of this was present in the book. But while I'm happy Jackson has stayed true to the source material, that is a book and this isn't. There is really not much reason the film could not have ended at the wrap-up, with a three minute closing narration, perhaps by Cate Blanchett who opened the narration in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. I'm sure many people with whom I shared my theatrical experience will call the film "perfect." This is after all, their baby. But I was there, and even I heard them snickering or saying, "Come on" as the screen faded back in for the umpteenth time. As I said earlier, THE RETURN OF THE KING is never boring, but it is just slightly overlong.
Still, Jackson has created a wonderful and mythical trilogy. A huge achievement that says big doesn't have to be stupid, that epics can take from tradition without falling into clich�, that special effects can really be special but that the true force of the story is in the telling of it. And for that, I am eternally grateful that this hometown boy has made good.
Now, watch me finally see the Extended Versions and say, "Hey, maybe they are perfect." Let's save that story for another time.