“The Battle for Helm’s Deep is over. The Battle for Middle Earth is about to begin.”
Sauron’s forces have attacked Gondor’s capital of Minas Tirith in his final siege against mankind. Watched over by a fading steward, Denethor (John Noble), the once great kingdom has never been in more desperate need of its king. But will Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) find the strength to become what he was born to be and ascend to meet his destiny?
As Gandalf (Ian McKellan), with Pippin (Billy Boyd) in tow, desperately tries to move the broken forces of Gondor to act, Thoden (Bernard Hill) unites the warriors of Rohan to join in the fight. Even in their courage and passionate loyalty, the forces of men – with Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) hidden among them – are no matches against the swarming legions of enemies raining down on the kingdom.
Despite great losses, The Fellowship charges forward in the greatest battle of their lifetime, united in their singular goal to keep Sauron distracted and give Frodo (Elijah Wood) a chance to complete his quest. Travelling across the treacherous enemy lands of Mordor, Frodo must rely increasingly on Sam (Sean Astin) and Gollum (Andy Serkis) as The Ring continues to test his allegiance and, ultimately, his humanity. The Fellowship’s journey is coming to an end.
Let’s face facts, folks – there has never been a third chapter to a movie trilogy that has fully delivered or satisfied the way it should have. Return of the Jedi was a good but soulless end to the original Star Wars trilogy, full of wooden acting, an overwhelming sense of trilogy dj vu and Ewoks. Godfather Part III, also decent, was completely unnecessary, nowhere near as good as the first two and starred Sofia Coppola. The less said about the third parts of the Matrix, Alien and Back To The Future franchises, the better.
Eventually, someone had to break the curse, and it has finally happened. It brings me great pleasure to tell you, though it should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the first two films, that Peter Jackson’s third and final entry in the Lord of the Rings saga, The Return of the King, is the film to break said nuisance.
This is a vital, exhilarating concluding chapter that successfully entertains and more than stands on its own merits. The New Zealand director has pulled out all the stops to deliver a bigger, darker, more emotionally resonant motion picture experience that is more satisfying than any fantasy film or second sequel that has come before it. And yes, that includes The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.
Despite shooting all three films at the same time and doing a hell of a job on parts one and two, Jackson’s work here is his finest hour, more accomplished and assured than ever. Trials and personal dramas that each of the characters endure in their journeys are given as much attention as the massive battle sequences, in particular the breathtaking Battle of Pelennor Fields.
Sharing writing duties once more with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, the director does a fantastic job adapting Tolkien’s final book of the series from page to screen. The trio faithfully capture and translate the late author’s eye for detail, small character idiosyncrasies and themes of friendship, temptation, loyalty and bravery that will please both hardcore fans of Tolkien’s books and fans of the films.
I stated last year that his trio deserved at least an Oscar nomination for their work on adapting The Two Towers (didn’t happen). By taking the slimmest of the three novels and turning it into the richest of films, they deserve not only an Oscar nomination, but quite possibly the award as well.
The large, returning ensemble cast also displays a higher level of acting quality. All have become comfortable, but not complacent, in his or her character. There isn’t a bad performance to be had (John Noble makes a fine addition to the cast as Denethor, the jerk of Middle Earth), with the trio of Sean Astin, Elijah Wood and Andy Serkis being this chapter’s true standouts.
Wood does a fine job handling Frodo’s physical and mental struggles with his task, Serkis is once again wonderfully evil as Gollum and Astin’s heartfelt turn as Sam reveals his character to be the true hero of the saga. If there is one minor quibble, it is this – I missed seeing Christopher Lee’s Saurman, whose scenes have been cut and saved for the Extended Edition due in 2004.
On a technical level, this is about as good as it gets. From Howard Shore’s majestic score to Andrew Lesnie’s rich cinematography to Weta Workshop’s eye-popping visual effects, including the terrifying giant spider Shelob and an army of 200,000 orcs waging war on Minas Tirith, the movie dazzles the eye as much as it does the mind and heart.
Looking back to a little over two years ago, I remember that I wasn’t looking forward to these films. Hollywood seemed to be stuck in a rut – while the price tag on films kept going up, the level of quality went in the opposite direction. After the horrible summer movie season of 2001, I had become so jaded with mega-hyped blockbuster wannabe’s that I was convinced this series would just be more of the same – all style, zero substance.
How wonderful it was to be wrong. While the overall quality of big-budget American cinema continues to slide into the sewer, Peter Jackson and his cast and crew of thousands have shown me that quality commercial cinema such as this, the most fully satisfying cinematic trilogy made to date in the history of cinema, is still capable of existing.