(Originally posted on 12/22/03)
With Christmas rapidly approaching, I don't have adequate time to give Peter Jackson's mesmerizing The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King its due. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to extol, however briefly, the virtues of this series' awe-inspiring finale. Jackson culminates his trilogy in grand style, elevating the film's central clash between good and evil to majestic heights not reached in the story's first two installments. While the film gorgeously intertwines grand spectacle (the climactic Battle of Pelennor Fields) with intimate human drama (Sam, Frodo, and Gollum's ascent up Mount Doom to dispatch the One Ring of Power), what's truly spectacular is the way in which the film seems bestowed with near-biblical import. The war between man and Orc is nothing less than a holy crusade for the fate of civilization, and it's hard not to see echoes of the United States' current predicament in Middle Earth's cataclysmic crisis. Not to say that The Return of the King succeeds because of its topicality. Whether it's the haggard desperation of Elijah Wood's Frodo, the courageous determination of Sean Astin's Sam, the cunning malevolence of Gollum, the regal serenity of Ian McKellen's Gandalf, or the stubborn pluckiness of Miranda Otto's Eowyn, the film imbues its central conflicts with mythic timelessness. With the surprising exception of Viggo Mortensen -- who, as the titular ruler, is given little to do but react to those around him with dull resolve -- the cast's performances are all charming. Still, the film belongs to Jackson, whose swift and dexterous direction recalls, in its enormous size and scope, the work of Lean and Griffith. Using a combination of on-the-ground hand-held photography and swooping crane and airborne shots (the best of which zoom around and under the titanic, Mastodon-like beasts used by Sauron's armies), Jackson thrillingly immerses us within the frenetic combat. I'm not wholly convinced that The Return of the King is the year's best film, but there's no doubt that Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is one of the modern cinema's crowning achievements.