The best Lord of the Rings film yet.

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Dec. 16 2003 2:16 PM

To Mordor and Back

Peter Jackson's wondrous Return of the King.

Facing doom and Gollum
Facing doom and Gollum

There's a sequence an hour into Peter Jackson's The Return of the King (New Line), the final film of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, that renders any narrative confusions, any objections to the lack of fidelity to J.R.R. Tolkien's original, any lingering doubts about the scale of this accomplishment, magnificently irrelevant. The armies of Sauron—hundreds of thousands of Orcs—are heading for the seven-tiered "city of kings" called Minas Tirith, where the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd) are attempting to convince a dangerously depressed and unhinged ruler, Denethor (John Noble), to call in reinforcements. Pippin is dispatched to climb a tower, slip past the guards, and set fire to a huge beacon as a signal to Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the future king, across the plains at Edoras, the Rohan capital. What happens when Pippin fulfills his mission is breathtaking: Jackson's camera soars, godlike, to the next Olympian peak, where watchers light their own beacon, and then to the next and the next and the next, until, in Edoras, Mortensen's Aragon turns his blue eyes to the light on yonder mount and asks the men of Rohan to ride into battle.

Of all the things to love about The Return of the King, it's those lightning shifts in scale that I find the most thrilling. I don't mean just the sudden impossible hugeness of it—those hundreds of thousands of demonic Orcs led by massive trolls and winged dragons called Fell Beasts and eight-story elephants called Mumakil as they surge toward a seven-tiered city that soars into the sky. I mean the way Jackson cuts from that amazing vision to something small: a spiked wheel grinding as the heavy gates of the city close; then a human face—Pippin, say, with his mouth grimly set and his eyes shocked open; then a few hundred thousand more marauding Orcs. So you get eye-popping spectacle, then a close-up with texture and weight, then a flash of human emotion, then more eye-popping spectacle. The threads are awesome, but it's the weave—of the epic and the intimate, the airy and the visceral, the lofty and the blood-curdling—that's spellbinding.

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This is the best of the three Rings movies—more than that, it makes the others look even better. You can finally see the arc of the trilogy: not just J.R.R. Tolkien's, with its blend of Norse and Christian myth, but Peter Jackson's. The New Zealand director got his start in the horror genre and has always grooved on splattery excess and a manic invasiveness. It works like gangbusters for Tolkien, whose demons are the enemies of the land itself. They plunder Middle-earth with infernal machines and try to rip out its guts; they claw for the accursed title Ring of Power like drug addicts. Jackson brings an intensity to the battle of good and evil that makes the stiff, well-mannered drones of George Lucas' Star Wars epics look like stick figures in a bad, Japanese-made Saturday-morning cartoon.

Aragorn and Gandalf fight the righteous war
Aragorn and Gandalf fight the righteous war

Like its predecessor, last year's The Two Towers, The Return of the King opens choppy, and it took me maybe a third of its three hours to get up to speed—I wanted a map of Middle-earth, a family tree, and a translator. There are three separate storylines. The first involves the martial energies Aragorn, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and the warriors of Rohan, commanded by the invigorated Théoden (Bernard Hill)—he of the dishy niece Éowyn (Miranda Otto), who swings a sword as bonnily as she simmers when she gazes into Aragorn's baby blues. In the second thread, Gandalf and Pippin hang out on the seventh level of Minas Tirith attempting to keep Denethor from accelerating the fall of the city.

In the last and most crucial narrative strand, the hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), thread their way through treacherous mountain passes into Mordor, where they hope to destroy the Ring of Power. They're still dogged by the schizoid Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis), who has lost the battle to his inner demons and now slobbers with glee at the prospect of reclaiming the ring he calls his "precious." His skin translucent and stretched tight over his tiny body, his bulging eyes a radioactive blue, his voice like Peter Lorre's death rattle, this computer-generated creature is one of the cinema's most shocking portraits of addiction—now fawning, now bestial, but always completely disgusting.

Sam wants to pitch Gollum over the rocks, but Frodo is inclined toward Christian charity, which makes him a different kind of hero than the usual sword-and-sorcery he-man. But this is a different sort of epic—one in which tens of thousands of humans die to destroy what in essence is a weapon of mass destruction. It's a holy war in the name of peace, suffused with melancholy regret, and fervid in its conviction that the very pursuit of absolute power corrupts absolutely. The central villain, Sauron, is seen only as a giant flaming eyeball on a mountaintop—a comedown, perhaps, from Christopher Lee's magisterial Saruman. (Lee has been left on the cutting-room floor, eliminating the most jarring element of Tolkien's coda.) But the sense of evil is palpable, and giving one's life to defeat it glorious. This is a movie in which war is so righteous and the inability to wage it so damnable that men come back from the dead to fight the good fight—their last chance to redeem themselves and move on to the "far green country" that Gandalf extols. "Can we win?" asks someone of Théoden. "No, we cannot," says the king. "But we will meet them in battle nonetheless."

There is one point in the movie when the miracles just keep coming—among them battles of operatic intensity, with black arrows raining from the skies like locusts, and what is surely the cinema's most nightmarish arachnid, courtesy of this famously arachnophobic director. Is it unseemly to quibble that sometimes the cutting among the plotlines feels arbitrary? (Jackson's first cut was reportedly four-and-a-half hours.) I am surely not the only one who finds Aragorn's preference for the radiantly dull Arwen (Liv Tyler) over that stirring wench Éowyn less convincing than the giant trolls and elephants and spiders. Gollum gets an end that is worthy of him, but the ground for the last temptation of Frodo hasn't been especially well-prepared.

Quibbles, piddles, drops in a bucket as big as an ocean. The Return of the King is maybe not a war film in the class of Eisenstein or Kurosawa or Welles' Chimes at Midnight (1965) or the opening of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998). But it might be the cinema's most astonishing holy war film. The Lord of the Rings took seven years and an army of gifted artists to execute, and the striving of its makers is in every splendid frame. It's more than a movie—it's a gift.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.