At 12:01 AM Wednesday morning, the lights went down, the audience became still, and the screen went dark. On a black background, the familiar logo of Peter Jackson's the Lord of the Rings trilogy faded into view. Over the next (nearly) four hours, not a muscle moved, not a mouth opened, and closure was brought to what is perhaps the greatest movie trilogy ever made.
It's hard for me to be very objective about the Lord of the Rings. I've a lot invested in it -- from a childhood of Fantasy and sci-fi, to an adolescence of Dungeons & Dragons, to the last three years, seeing each of the first two LOTR films several times in the theater, buying all the DVDs, and watching each dozens of times. My breath was taken away by the Fellowship of the Ring, where I was turned from a wary cynic (suspicious of the motives, talent, sanity and, of course, the end result, should anyone try to bring the grandfather of the Fantasy genre to the screen) to a true believer and ardent fan. In the Two Towers my belief in Jackson's brilliance as a director was solidified -- his ability to lay out the dry, sometimes confusing middle chapter of the three books in such a delightful, engaging manner proved his mastery over the art of filmmaking, as well as his source material. The Return of the King is the crowning achievement of his work. Tolkien's final LOTR chapter could easily have become a rambling, choppy, senseless series of battles and bloodshed without any central meaning. So much is going on in the story at this end point (especially when you include the additional story items Jackson added, and the stuff he held over from the second book), so many stories are running in parallel, that it would have been absolutely understandable (though terribly sad) had the Return of the King collapsed in upon itself in an unintelligible jumble.
Instead, LOTR: ROTK is just the opposite. It's a fast-paced, often relentless, frightening and emotionally stirring conclusion to a magnificent story. Jackson deftly handles all the story's disparate elements, condensing here, lengthening and providing extra explanation there, and finding just the right moments from the book to fully illuminate. The actors continue their great work here as well -- Sean Astin and Viggo Mortenson especially. Even the normally hammy Hugo Weaving finds an as-yet-unseen reserve of subtlety and emotion in Elrond's expanded (from the book) role, and Billy Boyd's walking screw-up of a hobbit, Pippin, finally has his terrifyingly beautiful moment as he sings to Denathor during Faramir's charge against the Orcs in Osgiliath. In fact, all of the supporting the players, from Miranda Otto to Orlando Bloom and back again, do inspiring work, and Andy Serkis (with the help of WETA's digital effects) is once again spectacular. The digital effects remain startlingly good, especially the ultra-creepy Shelob, the terrifying (this time out) Nazgul steeds, the Great Eagles, and the incredible Oliphaunts. But Jackson is the real star here, balancing despair, exaltation, joy and horrible battle in a way I wouldn't have thought possible. It's difficult to describe much of the action without spoiling the film for viewers who have not yet seen it and don't know how it ends, but I spent the full three and a half hours perched on the edge of my seat. In a theater of several hundred people, I noticed only two or three get up to pee during the entire film. Considering this was between midnight and four in the morning, and we'd all consumed giant caffeinated colas in order to be alert and ready, this is perhaps the greatest testament to Jackson's riveting storytelling.
All that said, the movie is not without his flaws. Occasionally, there are sections which were clearly edited for time, and did not breathe with the same full life as the rest of the movie. There are two bizarre shots of a stone gargoyle in the pass beneath Minas Morgul which are jarring in that they are more silly than scary, which is not in keeping with the rest of the scene in which they live. And I will not be the first, I'm sure, to comment that the conclusion is a bit overlong. Jackson has a terribly hard task in wrapping up 12+ hours worth of movie, but he lingers just a bit too much in the land of hugging and laughing and crying right at the end (though he thankfully spares us the "reclaiming of the Shire" silliness which mars the end of Tolkien's book). Without giving too much away, let me say that I'd have cut the "waking up, jumping on bed" scene and the "returns to wife and kids" scene, and trimmed the Shire stuff to one montage under a brief voice over.
Still, I can't fault Jackson for wanting to linger in his fantastic rendition of the Third Age of Middle Earth just a bit longer. I can't fault him for wanting to give a long, well-deserved goodbye to those characters who are left standing. And, for all my criticisms, I still get a little bit verklempt thinking about those happy, and sad, goodbyes.
In the end, the Return of the King is everything I hoped it would be. The only really bad thing about the movie is that there won't be a fourth one to look forward to next Christmas. That makes me very sad indeed.