The most hallucinatory of war films, The Return of the King concludes the Lord of the Rings trilogy with a burst of smoky grandeur. As our suffering Frodo (Elijah Wood), his faithful Sam (Sean Astin), and the grotesque Gollum (Andy Serkis) continue on their mission behind enemy lines, Gondor is besieged. Will the United Nations of Middle Earth be too late? As a wizard tells an elf—or is it vice versa?—it’s “the great battle of our time.”
Be that as it may, Peter Jackson’s hobbit epic is certainly the greatest feat of pop movie magic since Titanic—albeit more boy’s tale than romance. Speaking as a deprogrammed, once-upon-a-time Tolkien cultist, I imagine that fans will be ecstatic. The multifarious characters all come to fruition; even if the movie hadn’t had the mystical good fortune to coincide with the wars against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, its complex mythology would still have the inevitability (and superior CGI) of a perfect storm. Truly, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; it’s fruitless to point out that Jackson’s magnum opus is hermetic and overdetermined, lacking the visionary chutzpah and demented social energy that characterized the great pulp fantasies created by Fritz Lang in the 1920s, Die Nibelungen and Metropolis.
What else is there to compare this to? The Matrix trilogy imploded; the Star Wars series seems but a pale Tinkertoy Tolkien imitation. For three and a half hours, Jackson deploys multitudes of digital and digitally enhanced creatures—not just orcs and ents, but dive-bombing pterodactyls, Humvee mega mastodons, dragonic battering rams, lava ogres, and the scariest spider that ever spun a web. Conflict is eternal. The extravagant battle scenes are spiced with flash-forward telepathies and enlivened by stray shards of character psychology: Gollum’s divided consciousness, Frodo’s anxious paranoia, the filial conflict between the grand grouch of Gondor (John Noble) and his son Faramir (David Wenham), the fiery torch carried for Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) by the amazon Rohan babe (Miranda Otto).
Look, don’t listen. (Aragorn’s Agincourt speech is not exactly Shakespeare.) And, as Pippin learns from the peep stone, don’t look at anything too long ere it begins to look back. The natural wonders of New Zealand notwithstanding, Jackson’s visuals have a fusty, storybook quality. The besieged citadel Minas Tirith is a splendid Dubrovnik-like stone city, but in more contemplative moments, the production design tends toward the chintzy. The elf forest has the feel of an emptied-out tropical resort; the interiors have the cloying quality of a Victorian faerie painting. Yet, with four or five narratives to follow, there probably hasn’t been so much parallel action in any movie since the Birth of a Nation or even Intolerance. It’s so addictive that The Return of the King suffers when it returns to ordinary two-story suspense—not that the climactic cataclysm isn’t suitably colossal, as the Black Tower crumbles, the Black Land collapses, Mount Doom erupts, and the Great Eye explodes.
In short, this Krakatoa is at once exhausting and riveting. It’s a technological marvel, and for those not with the program, a bit of a bore. And that’s before the interminable farewells, Celtic airs, longing looks, Shire celebrations, and expeditions into a New Age sea of light that make up the lugubrious closer. The Ring trilogy may be fiercely chaste, but its hobbituary denouement is gayer than anything in Angels in America. Now, there’s a scenario worthy of Lang. Watching Angels on TV, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people might be prepared to graduate from Tolkien’s millennial fantasy to Kushner’s.
“Where the Boys Are: Girl talk with Lord of the Rings screenwriter Philippa Boyens” by Laura Sinagra